From a bird’s eye view, Conakry is a skinny peninsula stretching southeast into the Gulf of Guinea. It is webbed with one-way streets and sprinkled with grassy roundabouts – all of which funnel into one route of passage back to the mainland. Right down the center is the main thoroughfare. On weekdays cars crawl in and out like sand in an hourglass. In the port at the end of the peninsula is a blue and white ship, its prominent docking spot catching the attention of (slowly) commuting Guineans daily.
In the skinniest slice of the bottleneck, the main street forks and hugs a rectangular property on which sits the Palais du Peuple, “the People’s Palace.” Before sunrise Monday, Mercy Ships crew members filed off of the blue and white ship and into the first caravan of 15 Land Rovers bound for for the biggest event of the Guinea Field Service – patient screening day.
The People’s Palace is a gray three-story public auditorium with a large front lot and open interior, which made it the perfect venue for Mercy Ships to screen more than 3,454 potential patients. When the Mercy Ships caravan arrived, more than 1,200 people, many of whom had been there all night, already lined the perimeter.
“As we suspected, there is a lot of need,” Managing Director Donavan Palmer said at the site Monday afternoon. “There are 3,000 to 4,000 people in this line. It confirms the need for us to be here.”
Since the Africa Mercy’s arrival on August 22nd, anticipation in the city had escalated. Local radio and TV stations ran spots featuring available health services offered by Mercy Ships; crew members passed out flyers with information about screening day; and on the streets of Conakry, word of mouth quickly spread the news of the event. The response was overwhelming. By the end of Monday, an estimated 4,500 potential patients and caregivers had entered the gates.
"As with so many other things in Mercy Ships, we can do together what we could never do on our own,” Africa Mercy Chief Medical Officer and maxillofacial surgeon Dr. Gary Parker said. “Our successful surgical screening event in Conakry this past week is a perfect example of this, as we experienced a combination of the strength of our ship’s community together with the prayers of people from across the world. Together we were able to treat people with respect and compassion, and we were able to keep them safe and secure in what could otherwise have turned into a very dangerous situation as 3,500 people converged in one location hoping to be selected.”
With such a large turnout, patience was required of everyone involved. Guiding patients through paperwork, diagnosis, pre-operative photo and scheduling stations was efficiently handled by approximately 300 crew members. They also passed out water, sandwiches and snacks to patients and caregivers who sat in the waiting areas. Soon the congested station lines mirrored the vehicle traffic outside the gates, but no one was complaining – because on the other side of this bottleneck was much needed health care that was well worth waiting for.
Unfortunately, the backed-up lines during screening are only a microcosm of the substantial need for health care resources in West Africa, and most especially in Guinea. With 1.3 health care workers for every 10,000 people, Guinea has the lowest ratio of health care workers to population of any countries that Mercy Ships has ever served. In the United Kingdom, there are more than 100 health care workers per 10,000 people.
“Guinea has enormous needs for better health care,” Steve Schwind, the Africa Mercy’s Staff Development Manager, told crew members in a briefing prior to screening day. “Guinea is among the lowest countries in West Africa in terms of health resources, which include medical workers and hospital facilities. It’s among the lowest countries in West Africa in terms of health outcomes such as maternal and child health. And it’s the lowest in life expectancy and overall human development.”
Because Guinea’s needs sprawl far beyond Conakry’s peninsula, Mercy Ships teams will go upcountry for more screenings in November. “Our plan is to have half of our patients come from the greater Conakry area and the remainder from the remote interior regions of Guinea,” Dr. Gary said. “We continue to request the prayers of our Mercy Ships friends and family across the world to see these patients come in as we send our screening team upcountry in November.”
By 9 p.m. Monday night, the lines finally ended, and 852 patients left with either surgery cards or plans for follow-up treatment. It was an amazing day for Mercy Ships volunteers – a strong start to the beginning of a new field service.
Written by Catherine Clarke Murphy
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Michelle Murrey and Debra Bell