“We are bringing you to Dakar.”
These were Elvis Ngwang’s absolute favourite words to tell patients in the months before the Africa Mercy® returned to Senegal.
After leaving earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital ship’s return in early 2022 was the fulfilment of a promise to hundreds of patients who’d had their surgeries postponed. For many, it meant the end of years of waiting for a life-changing operation.
In the lead-up to this return, Elvis volunteered his nursing skills to help vet the health of surgery candidates. Along with the rest of the Mercy Ships Global Patient Selection Team, Elvis travelled across all 14 regions of the country.
For potential patients and their families, he became the face of hope and healing.
“You see the joy in their hearts, and the smile on their faces, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You feel happy,” he said.
Through these travels, Elvis – originally from Cameroon – gained a unique perspective of the nation he currently calls home.
“It was really exciting to see how things happened in the other regions. The health system in the interior is quite different,” explained Elvis. Years of hands-on experience as a nurse in his home country had prepared him to assess a variety of conditions. In Cameroon, nursing is “not very specialised because we just don’t have so many nurses… You just do everything.”
Elvis was struck by the lack of healthcare resources in the rural regions of Senegal, a country with fewer than 1 surgical specialist per 100,000 people. While there has been tremendous growth recently, with mortality rates in Africa dropping by 40% in the last 20 years, there’s still much work to be done to increase access to care.
This mentality keeps Elvis focused on his purpose as a volunteer. For him, joining Mercy Ships was the fulfilment of a 14-year dream – one that started in his early days of nursing school, when he first learned of Mercy Ships from a Facebook advertisement.
Volunteering remained in the back of his mind throughout school, but it wasn’t until 2019 that he seized the opportunity to apply.
Then, after years of waiting and months of paving the way for patients in Senegal, it was finally time to board the Africa Mercy in Dakar.
Finding Community Through Sports
Once on board, Elvis quickly earned a name for himself in an unexpected way. Among the crew, he became known for his love of basketball.
It’s been a lifelong passion for Elvis. “Growing up, there were periods where if I didn’t play for a week, I felt sick,” he laughed.
In adulthood, the game has become therapeutic.
“Basketball is something that makes me feel alive. It’s something that makes you forget the difficulties of life.” Now, in this season, this passion has become another way of finding community with other volunteers from around the world.
Reuniting with Familiar Faces
With the Africa Mercy back in active field service, Elvis has transitioned from working in the field to serving in the preoperative tent, where patients receive medical checks before they come on board for surgery. Many of the patients he greets are familiar faces. His role gives him an opportunity to reconnect with patients he met months ago in their homes. Next time he sees them, they’ll be on the other side of a life-changing surgery. And for many patients, as they go back to their communities and start new chapters in their lives, Elvis will remain that first glimpse of hope and healing made tangible.
Are you ready to become a face of hope and healing, just like Elvis? Running a hospital ship requires a range of medical, maritime, and general roles. View current volunteer opportunities at mercyships.org/makeyourmark.
Story by Riley Chow
Riley Chow has interviewed patients and fellow volunteers on board both the Africa Mercy and Global Mercy since 2021 to share stories like this. He previously lived in Vancouver, Canada, interviewing filmmakers and celebrities for a Hollywood publication.