Australian Vanessa Andean is currently volunteering in Cameroon as an Anaesthesia Provider on board the Africa Mercy. Here she shares her recollections of her final week in-country.

Dear Everyone

Here we are entering our fourth and final week in Cameroon with Mercy Ships.  While Jim has spent his time travelling with the teaching team, braving appalling roads and even worse food (it turns out viper and armadillo are not his favourite dishes), I’ve been working on the ship in the operating theatres doing exactly what I do at home in an entirely different context.

Cameroon is as poor as Madagascar and not quite as impoverished as Guinea – which isn’t saying very much.  The usual problems exist, including difficult or no access to health care, and when people can get to a hospital they are expected to pay for their treatment, including all the equipment (gloves, sutures, needles etc) used in any procedures. Even when patients can pay, there isn’t very much available.  Jim visited a bush hospital that can only do caesarian sections and hernia operations, the surgical assistant also does the anaesthetic, the lighting is provided by camping-grade head torches because the generator got pinched by local officials, and the maternity ward is regularly broken into overnight by squatters who have to be shooed out every morning.  A frustrating place for the two staff whose job it is to keep operating theatres running.  So it’s nice to know that there’s a need for the free-of-charge operations offered by the ship, but it’s sad that the roughly 2,000 patients who will get help are only a tiny fraction of those who need care.

Patients come from all over the country, which stretches from the Gulf of Guinea up past Nigeria and as far as Chad.  Boko Haram regularly visits the north (nowhere near us!).  The official languages are French and English with over 200 local languages and there’s a bit of armed conflict between the English and French-speaking regions right now (also far from us but no fun for those caught up in it) – apparently the anglophones are sick of the rampant corruption.

The diversity among patients is quite gob smacking.  I’ve looked after a man who was over 6 feet tall and weighed 110 kilos, and also a perfectly proportioned lady who at around 4 feet tall weighed 35 kilos.  Apart from looking quite different they had no language in common.  Pidgin English (or Bush English) is spoken by quite a few people.  I am (almost) certain that my question Do you have any loose teeth?  was translated as Does you teeth shake in you head?  Wonderful.

Many of the ladies look like they’re dressed for a party all of the time – they wear long dresses in every imaginable colour with ruffles everywhere, similarly exotic headdresses and either hair braids or dramatic wigs.  The effect is magnificent, and I can’t help but think that any of us anglo visitors would look completely absurd if we tried it.

The operations we are doing remain the same as on other trips – cataract extractions, orthopaedics to straighten out kids’ legs, removal of big tumours from faces and necks, obstetric fistula operations to help women who leak continuously from bladder and/or bowels after traumatic deliveries of babies.  The high-stakes procedure of the month was the removal of a 2kg tumour from the backside of a 6kg baby – a bit like an adult having a 20 kilo lump taken off.  I was very happy that a very capable anaesthetist from the US put her hand up for that one.   All went well and after just one overnight in Intensive Care the little munchkin was in fabulous form, and he’s since gone home.

I’ve spent most of my time in the head and neck theatre with the surgeon who has spent 30 years working permanently on the ship. He does all sorts of operations but the iconic one for me remains repair of cleft lip and cleft palate.  Normally these should be fixed at 3 months and 1 year of age respectively, but we see kids of all ages and even some adults.  It’s very rewarding to achieve such change with a couple of hours on the operating table – really awful deformities become a small line of stitches and kids who have never been able to speak can be sent down the hallway to do their speech exercises.

I’ve been mentoring a local anaesthetic nurse who is spending two weeks working with me.  A bit of a challenge for both of us.  She is very keen to learn and do things but we are both aware of some of the limitations of her sparse training and the lack of equipment at her home hospital.  The aim is to get her doing simple things safely and to keep her morale up.

The ship itself remains a little foreign bubble tied up in the port of Douala.  Our ultra-clean air conditioned hospital/boarding house gives way very quickly to the rats and grime of the docks, and the roads are clogged with improbably ancient and overcrowded vehicles.  We’ve made it out of town for two weekends away, both times to a village in the hills about four hours away where we stayed in a lovely shabby little villa along with other aid workers – UNICEF was there, the local Spanish mission hospital staff, and some other Mercy Ships people.  The only tourist we met was an eccentric young Irishman who’d visited a local tailor to get himself a batik suit so that (especially when wearing aviator sunglasses) he looked like your quintessential diamond dealer.

We did a hike up to a pair of crater lakes – one male and one female.  We asked the guide how you could tell which was which and he looked rather bemused at our stupidity and said, “Well it’s obvious…”  So we’re still none the wiser.  We also visited a spectacular waterfall where the 1942 version of Tarzan was filmed, and had a walk through the jungle looking for chimpanzees and gorillas.  None showed themselves but we did hear a lot of screaming and yelling nearby, some of it in answer to the hooting of our guide, so we’re happy that we at least heard some chimps.  And morning tea was a glorious fresh pineapple picked along the way and chopped up with a machete so we were pretty content with the outing.

There are all sorts of things we won’t have time to do, from climbing Mt Cameroon to visiting chimpanzee rescue centres, but both have been recommended if anyone’s thinking of popping past this way on a holiday.

We’ll be home in a week.

Love to everyone,