In Liberia, people knew Aminata as "the witch of Freetown." Elsewhere in Liberia, 40-year-old Beatrice's appearance was so shocking, local taxi drivers refused to pick her up. In another rural area, Angelle's relatives thought someone had cursed the orphan girl, so they kept passing her off to other caregivers.
Aminata, Beatrice, and Angelle all had one thing in common: Large tumors grossly disfigured their faces. In many parts of the developing world, such untreated facial tumors can grow enormous, distorting eye sockets, foreheads, and jawlines. People afflicted with these tumors are severely stigmatized: some think they are cursed, while others just find them repulsive. The complex facial surgery necessary to treat these tumors and reconstruct a face is not widely available for the chronically poor. But if left untreated, the tumors will keep growing, sometimes suffocating the victim. The non-malignant, 6-pound tumor on Beatrice's face so restricted her eating and breathing it nearly killed her.
While the Western world has plenty of surgeons who can deal with such tumors, the developing world has few. Which is why on July 7, 1982, the Anastasis, a rehabbed 1953 Italian cruise liner, set sail for major ports throughout the majority world. It was the beginning of Mercy Ships, founded in 1978 within the nondenominational mission agency YWAM (Youth With a Mission).
As a floating hospital, its mission was to bring world-class surgeons and free medical care to the poor in the name of Christ. It was a dream come true for missionaries Don Stephens, his wife Deyon, and a dogged group of YWAMers who volunteered their labor for years before the Anastasis entered service. "Mercy Ships focuses on the lowest tier of need," founder Stephens told Christianity Today.
The original idea of a charitable hospital ship goes back five decades. From 1960 to 1974, the SS Hope, a decommissioned U.S. Navy hospital ship, visited 11 ports in developing countries, bringing medical care to civilians without access to such. After the horrors of World War II, the SS Hope was a global inspiration and captured the imagination of Stephens and YWAM leaders. Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) operated this ship. (It is now a land-based charity that provides health care expertise to agencies in the developing world.)
As the Anastasis served around the world over the next 25 years, Mercy Ships expanded its fleet, adding the Island Mercy (serving Asia) and the Caribbean Mercy (serving Central America). During that quarter century, Mercy Ships physicians performed more than 32,500 surgeries for cleft lip and palate, cataract removal, obstetric fistula, hernia, and facial reconstructionincluding tumor-removal surgery for patients Aminata, Beatrice, and Angelle.
Mercy Ships staff and volunteers also treated another 212,000 in village-based clinics in those two and a half decades. The Anastasis and its sister vessels visited 550 ports in 70 nations.
After almost three decades in service, the Anastasis was worn out and had become costly to repair and maintain. In 1999, Mercy Ships acquired the Dronning Ingrid, a Danish rail ferry, and began a $62.5 million rehab, transforming it into the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship.
Rechristened the Africa Mercy, this ship is on its first deployment, serving in Liberia for about 10 months now. The Africa Mercy is 499 feet long, has six operating rooms, a capacity for 78 patients, and berths for 484. By 2003, Mercy Ships was ready to separate from YWAM and the two organizations agreed to operate independently.