The love boat
Butte County mother and son join Mercy Ships expedition
For three years, Ryan Sutherland had a life many men in their 20s might envy: a great job as a video-game tester, a good salary, and a life in the culturally rich Bay Area.
But there was a downside: His job involved long hours and a lot of stress, and offered no opportunities for traveling. Besides that, Sutherland knew he wanted to experience different cultures and serve others in some capacity. After a period of reflection, he resigned from his dream job and opted for helping others. That was a year ago. He recently returned to Chico, where his family lives, just before Christmas for a short holiday hiatus from his 10-month stint aboard the Mercy Ship off the coast of the West African nation of Benin.
Mercy Ships is an international charity that has operated hospital ships in developing nations since 1978, bringing together medical personnel and resources to aid the forgotten poor. Short-term volunteers may participate from two weeks to a year on the ships, while others serve in a longer capacity. All volunteers pay a monthly fee to work aboard ship.
Sutherland, a 26-year-old with a neatly trimmed mustache and beard, started his adventure last January when he went to Texas for six weeks’ training in the Gateway Program, which included learning about cultural differences. He arrived in Benin on March 9 and went to work aboard the ship the next day. At first, he worked maintaining the ship’s audio-visual equipment. Later, he worked in reception, where he was in charge of embarking and disembarking crew—about 400 people from around the world—and monitoring some of the ship’s equipment. Most of the time, his jobs did not include contact with patients.
“Most days, I didn’t get to see the real effect of what we were doing there,” he explained. “What made it real for me was when I would walk through the hospital part of the ship and see the patients. I really enjoyed serving people, and I enjoyed traveling and experiencing other cultures. I wasn’t doing anything like what I’d done at my job with Electronic Arts.”
Sutherland was reared in a family that taught the importance of giving. His parents, Chico residents O.J. and Sher Sutherland, have helped the community over the years, and they host a college night dinner and Bible study at their Stilson Canyon home each Tuesday evening.
Even before her son headed to the Mercy Ship, Sher knew she would end up volunteering there, too. She recently returned to Chico with her son after spending five weeks on the ship, and mother and son talked about the expedition in the comfortable, warm kitchen of the Sutherland family home.
Sher explained that in Benin most people have no access to surgery.
“If they’re going to have an operation, they have to go buy their own supplies and bring them to the hospital,” she said. “Most of the people can’t afford it.”
She heard horror stories about the conditions in Benin’s hospitals, including that there were lots of flies and heat in the patient rooms.
During her five weeks aboard the ship, Sher was “the African queen of the latrine,” she said. She was advised upon boarding that she’d be living on a “floating Petri dish,” and she and several others were responsible for the cleaning and disinfecting.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “It got me hook, line and sinker. What I was doing aboard the ship was such a switch from what I do in my ‘real’ life—I work in front of a computer a lot. On the ship, I never got off my feet all day long.”
There was no dearth of patients to care for. The average worker in Benin makes less than $2 a day, and more than 50 percent of Africans have no access to health care.
Sutherland said much of what the ship’s hospital treated included cataracts (which are prolific in Benin, including among children), tumors, contracture scar-tissue release (with much of people’s scar-tissue problems resulting from the open-pit fires over which many Africans cook), and VVF (a type of vaginal fistula, or abnormal opening, caused by labored childbirth, and which results in women being ostracized). Ship surgeons also corrected bow-legged, cleft-palate and cleft-lip, and clubfoot conditions in children.
During the recent sit-down interview, he spoke in a thoughtful and measured way as he reflected on his experiences.
“On the streets in Benin, people hiss at you or make a kissing noise to try to get you to look their way, which is something you have to get used to,” Sutherland said. “People will ask you for money and food.”
Although the ship is home to a state-of-the-art hospital, not everything was done the same as would be expected in the States.
“There was no blood-donor bank,” he said. “If surgery was going on, the operating room staff would page overhead, and someone would go to the lab and give blood. It would literally go from one person directly into the patient.”
Sutherland donated blood on more than one occasion.
The 2009 Benin Field Service, in which the Sutherlands participated, had record results: 97,625 procedures were performed and 67,219 lives were affected.
Sher went ashore one day (where she said she was totally unprepared for the Third World “smells”) to visit an orphanage, to which she and others took Bibles, olive oil and rice. One little boy clung to her and called her Mama when she had to leave.
“It just wrecked my heart,” she said.