Retired pharmacist helps on hospital ship in Africa The Chandler Arizonan

Retired pharmacist helps on hospital ship in Africa

Retired pharmacist helps on hospital ship in Africa
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By Colleen Sparks

Managing Editor

 

A Sun Lakes retired pharmacist is thrilled she could dispense goodwill along with fulfilling a long-term goal when she volunteered on a ship that offers life-changing medical relief for poor children and adults in Africa.

Anne McCluskey, 69, volunteered with Mercy Ships, an international faith-based organization that provides free surgeries and dental treatments to people in developing countries, from Sept. 23 to Jan. 5.

The retired regional director of pharmacy practice for Cardinal Health did what she knows best – perform duties as a pharmacist aboard Africa Mercy, a private hospital ship, while it was in Conakry, the capital of Guinea in West Africa.

Volunteer surgeons and nurses remove huge facial tumors, fix major orthopedic deformities in children including bowed legs; conduct cataract surgery to restore vision, correct women’s injuries that occur during obstructed labor and delivery, fix cleft lip and cleft palate and do other critical work.

While working in the pharmacy aboard the ship, McCluskey did inventory and supply chain management, making sure prescription medicine was available to patients and the crew.

She also went on rounds with doctors and nurses to review patients’ charts.

The pharmacists restocked medications and fluids into dispensing cabinets on four wards, as well as in the operating rooms every day, said Sandy Hewitt, senior pharmacist onboard the Africa Mercy. They filled prescriptions for patients in the ward and those being treated off the ship.

“All my life I’ve wanted to do a healthcare type of mission and so when I retired and I knew that my children are grown, I was able then to do it,” McCluskey said.

“I looked it up and I wanted the hospital ship environment. They have quite an itinerary. The purpose of it is to help and really change the world of one person. I’m very happy I went. You felt really good about being part of it. I had that opportunity to be part of the process and the support, so many good stories that came out of it.”

She had worked in hospitals during her career before retiring a couple years ago but said most of her professional experience was in administrative management, “supervising other pharmacists.”

Her contributions aboard Africa Mercy were valuable, Hewitt said.

“We have a unique pharmacy model and we all live together on a ship in one community,” she said. “Anne learned to adapt to this challenging environment. She has been calm, dependable and easy to work with, a hard worker and perseverant, so she was able to contribute well to the pharmacy team.

“Two of our core values at Mercy Ships are to love and serve others and to be people of excellence in all we say and do. Anne lives up to those values. She provided good pharmaceutical care to our patients and that resulted in the physical and emotional healing of our patients.”

Hewitt said she valued McCluskey’s knowledge of hospital pharmacy administration.

McCluskey, a mother of three adult daughters and grandmother to 11 grandchildren, said she was impressed by how many surgeries transformed people’s lives.

A faith-based organization, Mercy Ships aims to bring “hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor,” according to spokeswoman Pauline Rick.

“Much of what we saw were common to those areas only because of (poor nutrition) and just lack of access to healthcare,” McCluskey said.

She said she saw children who had received medical treatment so their legs were straightened.

“They were so gallant,” McCluskey said. “They had to learn how to walk with these heavy casts. They were so happy and diligent because this is like life-changing to them.”

She also witnessed people who had had large tumors removed from their faces look at themselves in the mirror with happy expressions.

McCluskey also said a woman in her early 20s who had never seen her children before due to cataracts got to see her family after eye surgery. When her eye patches were removed and “she could see, there were no words,” she said. “For the first time she saw her baby.”

Mercy Ships volunteer surgeons also operate on women who have suffered an injury during an obstructed labor and delivery of their baby that causes them to become incontinent, Rick said.

The condition is called obstetric fistula and happens because the women do not have access to get an emergency C-section.

“Many are forced to hide on the fringes of their communities and only come out at night to beg for food. They don’t know that there are other women with the same condition and that it can usually be cured by surgery,” McCluskey said.

“When they hear of Mercy Ships providing free operations to correct this condition, they come to the Africa Mercy, sometimes after years or even decades of incontinence,” she said. “Their heads are down and they are ashamed and embarrassed due to the odor of being continuously wet.”

She said the women learn from Mercy Ships nurses that their condition isn’t their fault. They’re treated with kindness and love throughout the process before and after surgery. 

“After their operations, their healing is celebrated with a ceremony provided by Mercy Ships,” McCluskey said. “The women’s hair and makeup is done. They are given a new dress by Mercy Ships and a bag of toiletries. They sing and dance and celebrate being healed. Once they leave the ship, they are filled with renewed hope with smiles on their faces.”

McCluskey said a screening team of nurses, doctors and others visits remote areas on land about once a month to see people with medical conditions they believed they could help. Some can’t be treated by the Mercy Ships team.

“Due to the lack of access to surgery, most of our surgery patients on the Africa Mercy have advanced surgical conditions by the time we see them,” Rick said.

In Africa many people have little or no access to healthcare and the continent has 2.5 physicians per every 10,000 people compared to 25 physicians for every 10,000 people in the United States, according to Mercy Ships.

A ship is a practical way to give people an opportunity to receive the medical care since more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a coast, the nonprofit organization said. Mercy Ships also offers a place on land near the ship where patients and their families can live as they recover from surgery and need rehabilitation and other assistance, McCluskey said.

“It’s interesting,” she said. “It’s totally unique. You know and understand the culture we have and the healthcare we have and the benefits we have to life are just nothing that they even have a glimmer of.”

“To be treated fairly, to be treated that you count, that you even have a say in the world, they don’t,” she added. “But they’re happy. They’re very happy. There’s no sitting around grumping around about anything.”

McCluskey and the other volunteers got to explore the town on land and she said they saw many local residents cooking food outside. She added she saw nice houses “next to nothingness” and children playing outside around chickens and goats.

Muslims constitute a majority of Guinea and she said it was interesting seeing mosques and hearing the call to prayer while there.

Mercy Ships hires up to 200 day crew workers from the local area in country port to help with everything from logistics to translation, and paid security staff members work onboard.

The surgeons, nurses and other short- and long-term crew, including McCluskey, are volunteers who pay room and board while serving on the ship.

Mercy Ships also provides specialized training to surgeons, nurses, doctors, dentists, ophthalmologists and other local healthcare professionals in methods and techniques appropriate for their environments.

Since 1978, the nonprofit organization has delivered services to over 2.71 million direct beneficiaries. Mercy Ships’ mission is to “follow the 2000-year-old model of Jesus, bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor,” Rick said.

McCluskey said, “It’s community living. It’s something to get used to. There’s a certain part of it that’s sort of interesting from the fact that there’s 450 of you on the ship… You’re really constantly living within the environment of other people, which is interesting. I lived in a six-person cabin. We had three rooms with two bunk beds in each. I have to say I had a very, very wonderful group of people.”

Many volunteer opportunities are available for people who want to serve on Mercy Ships, and right now the organization has particular needs for PICU nurses, teachers, maritime professionals and biomed technicians. Information: mercyships.org/volunteer

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