The Surgery Ship is a story about the incredible power of modern medicine and aid and, at the same time, it’s limitations. We live in a time of intense debate about the provision of medical services. Who should provide them? How should we pay for medicine? Who is entitled to medical aid? The story of a ship that travels the seas offering free medical help puts these questions into a dramatic new context.

West Africa shows us what life really means without access to the modern medicine we can take for granted. It’s like stepping back in time to a world without modern surgery. Illnesses no longer seen in the developed West, flourish here and many will eventually kill.

This is a complex story about the difficulty of giving aid. Like the characters in the film, the ship presents as a powerful, well-equipped vessel with some of the world’s best surgeons and support medics. Yet there are brutal limits to what it can achieve. No matter how much it does, the line of patients at its door is unending. So this is also a story about the ongoing quest to give aid and the impossibility of a quick fix in Africa.

The Surgery Ship is also a story about the intense ethical dilemmas faced by individual medics as they decide who they will help and who they will turn away, knowing that there is nowhere else for these people to go.

Despite these complicated issues, The Surgery Ship is also a story about the every day heroism of both Africans and the volunteers and the human drive to rise above circumstances, to survive, and give the best of ourselves – even when there seems no end in sight. At its heart, this is a positive film, in it we see people as active agents in the broader world arena – people who are seeking to make a difference. It is an outward looking story about how we can engage with the world.

Why did I choose this story to tell?

In 2009 after a complicated pregnancy I gave birth to a very premature and sick baby. We were both lucky to survive. I recovered relatively quickly, but my son Zeke spent over a year in hospital struggling to breathe with lungs too small to support his body and badly damaged from both premature birth and the invasive measures taken to save his life. It was a long, dark journey punctuated by many terrifying admissions into intensive care where Zeke would barely hold onto his life, breath by breath. He was not expected to survive, yet somehow he did.

Over that time, we became very close to a number of doctors and nurses – one of them was a volunteer on the Africa Mercy hospital ship. My curiosity was awoken: What would life be like in a part of the world which has almost no access to modern medicine?

I had just come through an experience of intensive modern medicine and even with the most advanced of care, we had only just survived. What could it mean to live in a world where this was not available? Even in the very dark hours of intensive care, we did not fear that the medicine or care would suddenly stop or that advanced treatments were unavailable to my son. How would it be to live in a part of the world where doctors, drugs, expertise – even basic sanitation – were simply a dream or images glimpsed on television, not a part of the reachable world?

I was particularly caught by the immensely difficult problem of choosing who would be helped and who would be turned away. The ship has extremely limited resources and part of it’s success is that it will only take patients whom they have a very good chance of curing. They can help people with benign tumours, obstetric and orthopaedic issues, burns complications, eyesight and dental needs. But this is only a fraction of the need in West Africa.

Many patients who have diseases that are routinely cured in the developed West are turned away. Although this makes sense from a pragmatic view of resources, my time in hospital painted all to vivid a picture of what the human and emotional toll this would take on the doctors and nurses. And my experience as a new mother told me all too well how it would feel for a parent to nurse a critically sick child – and to have no one to turn to for help.

Although in West Africa the languages and the culture are light years away from my life in Australia, I feel a deep personal connection to the struggle of both the ship volunteers and the patients to give and find healing for these children featured in The Surgery Ship.

Madeleine Hetherton
Series Producer