Mosman resident Harriet Gall has traded her high-flying life for a stint on board the world’s largest independent hospital ship in West Africa.
An aviation safety instructor with Qantas, Miss Gall joined the international medical charity Mercy Ships in June for six months of voluntary service on board the Africa Mercy as a hostess.
Flying first to Durban, South Africa, where the ship was docked for its annual maintenance period, Miss Gall then sailed with the ship and its crew to its current field location of Cotonou, Benin.
“Working in the aviation industry has helped me travel the world and West Africa was an opportunity for a new destination,” Miss Gall said.
“I always found it funny when I mentioned to family and friends that I would be serving in Benin, most replied ‘Berlin, but there is no ocean near Berlin!’”
“Work was very generous in allowing me to take the time off but most people thought I was a little crazy and taking a big risk in West Africa when the world ultimately is not always safe.”
Still, she says everyone has been extremely supportive especially her family.
In her role as hostess, Miss Gall welcomes arriving volunteers and guests, gives guided ship tours, prepares accommodations, and helps to organise special events.
“I believe my role on board is a pivotal role in helping to build relationships. That is, relationships with crew as I welcome them on board and relationships with the nations we visit through on board ship functions.”
The Africa Mercy, with its five operating theatres and 82 patient beds, arrived in Benin in August. During the current 10-month field service Mercy Ships plans to provide more than 1,700 surgeries to adult and paediatric patients, to treat over 8,000 people at a land-based dental clinic, and to provide training and mentoring to Beninese health care professionals.
“Ultimately I think the biggest problem facing the Beninese people is lack of infrastructure and therefore resources. Access to clean water and sanitation has led to a large hygiene problem within the community.”
“I spend very little time in or near the hospital on board the ship and therefore any opportunity I have to interact with the patients is enormously valuable.”
“My favourite moment to date was the first time I took a ship tour with new crew through the hospital. A young patient from the other end of the corridor with a beaming smile shouted out ‘Bonsoir’ and came running up to me to give me a high five.”
“It brought tears to my eyes, especially as she was a burns patient and both hands were heavily bandaged. It was at that moment that I really felt I was serving on board a hospital ship in West Africa.”
Miss Gall will arrive home in mid-December with plans to celebrate Christmas with her family and return to work in the New Year.
“What the ship has taught me most is when I return home, I will aim to simply slow down, try to remain positive and avoid the inevitable politics and negativity that can be so infectious.”
For further information, please contact:
National Office Manager, Mercy Ships Australia