Monday, September 18, 2017

5 months since Benin

It's 5 months to the day since Nick and I left Benin- those months slipped by quickly!  

Nick and Melchior prepare for an afternoon of seeing patients at the Ponseti Clinic

Today I want to take a moment to look back at our time in Benin, and tell you about our friends and colleagues there.  In both Madagascar and Benin, we have been blessed to work alongside amazing people who have become part of our "clubfoot family" around the world.  We are immensely proud of who they are, and their dedication to their patients.

This little patient was getting her last cast taken off, just in time for her first birthday the next day.  Her mama was thrilled!

In this post in January, we shared about some of the exciting progress made by the Benin clinic.  After January, Nick and the team went on to treat another group of patients together, totaling 20 kids. Throughout this time, CURE International remained involved supporting the work of the clinic, and in March they brought Melchior on as the country's clubfoot program manager, a full time position.

Ulysse and Rosemonde carefully assess the angles of a patient's foot, tracking their progress.

Twins- one born with clubfeet one born without.

Nick and Melchior discuss braces.

Teamwork includes the patient's parents.

This little guy, ready to take his first solo steps on straight feet!

During the final months of our visit, Nick helped facilitate the clinic's transition out of the season of working with Mercy Ships.  The team's clinical skills are excellent, and we know that anyone who brings their child to this team will find safe, good quality care.

Once he was offered the position of country program manager, one of the first questions CURE asked Melchior was whether or not he had a passport.  He went and got one, and sure enough they've already sent Melchior to Kenya and Rwanda for further leadership training.  In June 2017, here he is in Kigali, Rwanda on the left, and "meeting" a giraffe in Kenya on the right:

 Melchior reports that the team is doing well, they've brought on some new therapists to help with providing treatment.  Ulysse is currently in France doing a masters program in physical therapy, and we are very happy for him as he pursues further study (but he still loves clubfoot treatment!).  The clinic in Cotonou has welcomed a further 27 clubfoot patients since the ship left port!   

Melchior continues to raise awareness about clubfoot in Benin. Here's a twitter post from CURE clubfoot:

With support from CURE, the clinic will help open a second location further north in Benin.  There is a need for more clinics outside of the Cotonou area, so that good quality treatment is available in the more rural areas of the country.  The team is well equipped to share excellent clinical knowledge with other professionals in Benin.

A few more photos from our last weeks in Benin:

Last Ponseti team dinner - Nick and Marina (ever-amazing Ponseti Program Assistant) pass out gifts, lots of laughter, and a few last rubik's cube competitions (Nick taught both Ulysse and Melchior how to solve it, and they practiced during the whole outreach).   Melchior beat Nick's time.  :-)  In the bottom left photo is Josiane, the visionary clinic director who wanted her team to learn Ponseti, saw value in the training and gave the team the freedom they needed to pursue it.  She was a wonderful support during our visit in Benin.

We miss this sweet family!  Melchior and Rosemonde are both physical therapists, and we love seeing the great things they have already done for clubfoot kids in their country! 

We are honored to call all these wonderful people our friends, and we look forward to the next time we can visit Benin!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arrival Day! The Africa Mercy in port in Cameroon

Hello everyone! Breaking the silence on our quiet blog - good news, we are here on the ship in Cameroon!  Nick and I have enjoyed settling back into our cabin home and life on board since the ship arrived just over a week ago.  Standing on the dock and greeting the ship as it arrived was an incredible experience.

I am planning to post a couple more updates on what we’ve been up to lately- but here’s a quick overview:

It has really been a privilege to be part of the Mercy Ships Advance Team for Cameroon.  This means that we were part of the team which goes ahead of the ship's arrival to make sure everything is as prepared as possible for our 10 month visit

On advance, I was the Medical Capacity Building Liaison. This means I helped prepare for anything Mercy Ships does which involves teaching and training, including on-board mentoring for surgeons, anesthetists, nurses, preparing for various courses we will run, working on the WHO checklist project (click the link if you want to know more about it), and also helping prepare for the Ponseti Program.  

Nick’s role was to prepare children with very severe clubfeet to enter our orthopedic program.  We are starting orthopedic surgery early in the visit to Cameroon, so in order to give these kids the best outcomes possible, Nick has been pre-casting them to allow time for their feet to stretch out before they go to see Dr. Frank, our orthopedic surgeon.  Nick has also been working on starting his teaching program (which will offer treatment to younger children).  He has been meeting key contacts, and will even begin teaching an intensive course starting tomorrow. Nick never wastes time getting started once he’s arrived in a country.  The photo on the left is after Nick's first day of casting in Cameroon- happily back to being covered in plaster.

During advance we saw mountains move and saw the impossible become possible again and again.  Not an easy journey but a good one- and couldn't have asked for a better team!

Finally the arrival day really came! It's a Mercy Ships tradition for the advance team to have special outfits made for the arrival day- we chose our fabric here in Douala.  We stood on the dock along with a group of our newly-hired local Day Crew- local people who will work with us during the next 10 months.  They came along to sing and join in celebrating the ships arrival.  

What an amazing feeling after the first person yelled "I see it! I see it!" and we could see the white Africa Mercy off in the distance, coming around the corner!  

The ship was looking so lovely, with all the flags out and the crew standing out on deck waving back!

As the ship got closer, we could begin to make out faces of friends.  Then began a long frenzy of waving and yelling and cheering, with the Day Crew singing there on the dock with us.

Putting down the gangway in Cameroon.  What a beautiful thing.

A song we sing often in West Africa says:

Great things He has done
Greater things He will do
Unto the Lord be the glory
Great things He has done!

Lastly, a video!  I took a some video footage while we were welcoming the ship, here's the arrival from the perspective of the advance team: 

Monday, June 5, 2017

check out The Surgery Ship on NatGeo People in Australia!

Hello from Fort Wayne, Indiana!  Nick and I are currently on our personal time off in the states visiting family before we head to Cameroon to continue our time with Mercy Ships.

We wanted to take a moment to let friends and family in Australia know that today (6 June 2017) at 7:30pm AEST the final episode of the eight part national geographic program "The Surgery Ship" will air on the Nat Geo People channel.  This one includes Nick and the clubfoot program!  

This film team was with us during the first half of the Benin outreach from August-December 2016, and they did an amazing job following stories of the patients and crew, and capturing so much of the heart of what we do.

Here are a few screen grabs from the Mercy Ships Australia Facebook page....(click on the to view them larger)

Here's a quick preview for the 8 part series:


 - I don't have Nat Geo People Channel, how can I watch?

Here are some helpful directions (click here).  If you are in Australia, it is possible to view episode 1 free online, and also to sign up to Foxtel Play (with a free 2-week trial) if you would like to see other episodes online.

 - When will the series air in the USA?

The series is not yet airing in the USA.  We don't know when it will air, but we will keep you updated!  In the meantime, you can check out lots of clips, photos and previews at the National Geographic website here.  

More blog updates coming soon, but we just wanted to take a moment to share the news about the documentary!  Nick and I are doing well, and enjoying our break and out time with family.  If you want to see a few photos, you can head over to my instragram account here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

the months ahead, and the moments now

We have this wooden map on display in our cabin, we bought it in Madagascar last year.  Lately we've spent quite a few hours getting our flights booked for the coming months (and after lots of price comparing, emailing, and internet searching, I think we're mostly set)...we'll be flying over a few of these oceans in the not-too-distant future.  

What's happening now:

The first months of 2017 have been full for both of us, but in a good way.  

Our days are filled with doing what we came here to do- Nick is fully invested in seeing the clubfoot clinic planted on a very firm foundation before the ship leaves.  The clinic is still doing great; they are beginning the process of discharging the patients who were treated together with mercy ships into the care of the local clinic for follow up appointments.  Soon, the clinic will start treatment for more children, and they will be the primary treatment providers.  Nick will spend less and less time at the clinic during treatment sessions, and will provide input for more complex cases.

I am working in the ophthalmic operating room, and have the privilege to help return sight to those blinded by cataracts. We are treating about 60-70 people per week depending on the schedule, so it is a busy operating room!  We also have 4 local partner surgeons who have been coming on board for training in the MSICS (Manual Small Incision Cataract Surgery) method.  One of the four local surgeons joins us each day in the OR. 

God is at work in marvelous ways within both of these projects.

What's coming up next:

We have just over 6 weeks left in Benin.

We have committed to continuing with the ship to the next country, Cameroon.  We will both continue in our roles, myself in the operating room and Nick running the ponseti clubfoot clinic.  However, we will get to do something new and exciting as well.  We will both be going to Cameroon ahead of the ship's arrival to help with preparations.  More on that in a moment....

I wrote down a few key dates....

18 April - We go to Australia for one month.  We will see family, work for some weeks, and reconnect in Brisbane.

19 May - We go to the United States for one month.  Last time we were in the states was October 2015, so I am feeling ready to see my family!  We are also in need of rest and time off.

Mid June

Suzanne  - I go from the states to Cameroon to join the Advance Team (the team responsible for going ahead of the ship to make necessary preparations) as the Medical Capacity Building Liaison. 

This is so exciting for me, and I am thrilled and honored to take on the role.  In future posts I will tell more about what that means exactly, but in a nutshell it means that I will make preparations so that our MCB (Medical Capacity Building) department can get going as smoothly as possible once the ship arrives.  This means lots of relationship building, and communication with the local healthcare system- something I really love doing!  Check out this video if you'd like to learn more about our MCB department.

Nick - At the same time I head to Cameroon, Nick will go from the states to Switzerland for continued French language immersion/study.  There is a language school very near the Mercy Ships Swiss office, where the organization will be sending him.  We are very happy for him to have this opportunity.  Speaking french has changed so much about Nick's ability to teach well and build strong partnerships.  

In July, Nick will also come to Cameroon ahead of the ship and make preparations for the Ponseti program.  More on that in future posts as well.

August 2017 - The Africa Mercy arrives in Douala, Cameroon for 10 months field service

More thoughts on...

...our time here in Benin: 
 We love this country.  I don't think I'll be ready to say goodbye in 6 weeks, there so much more to see and experience in this place.  The hospital won't actually close till May, and the ship will head to the Canary Islands for annual repairs in June.  Because of upcoming plans, Nick and I need to leave a bit earlier.  
We are also not only saying goodbye to Benin, but to many fellow crew members (some of whom have served alongside us for years) who are moving on to a new season of life back home or taking a break from the ship next year.  
The upcoming six weeks means wrapping up work projects, saying goodbye to local friends and partners, and soaking up as much quality time with dear friends and fellow crew as we can.  For Nick, (among many other things) he will be writing final reports and making sure the handover from Mercy Ships to CURE International goes well for the clubfoot clinic.  In addition to working in the OR, I am attending Advance team meetings and also wrapping up some projects from the sterilization mentoring program.  These weeks are going to fly by.

...our upcoming time in Australia and America: 
We are ready to reconnect and also rest.  We are looking forward to seeing our sweet little almost-one-year-old niece in Australia, and also my youngest brothers in the states (and of course, the rest of our families as well).  :)   During our time in Australia, Nick is able to work at his hospital for a few weeks, and we are grateful that he is able to stay connected there.   

While we are in the states, we are thinking of hosting an open house at my parent's home in Fort Wayne so that we can have an opportunity to say hi to many friends and also share some stories from the last few years.  If you are in the Fort Wayne area stay tuned to future blog updates for more details.

...some prayer requests:
That we would say "goodbye/see you later" well as we head into a season of transitions.

That the Ponseti clinic would continue to develop into a strong center for clubfoot treatment in Benin.  We have big dreams for this place, and believe they will be a source of hope for many families in the future.

That details of our upcoming travels would continue to fall into place.  There are still some logistics to work out. 

Thank you for keeping up with our journey!  We are blessed by you!

Below are some recent photos... I've been taking more photos lately.  Wanting to capture lots of memories before it's time to move on.  Also - don't miss the amazing video at the end of the post from our ship's videographer!  (There are even a few clips from the clubfoot clinic in it)

Here's me at work - recently we operated on a few young patients.  Brave 10-12 year olds who laid perfectly still so that we could take their cataract out under local anesthesia, just like we do for the grown ups.  As a present, they each got a hand-knitted teddy bear, complete with an eye patch matching theirs. :)  Each one of those kids had completely won us over by the time they walked out of the OR.

Zemidjan (motor-taxi) traffic at a stoplight downtown.

One of my favorite places - fabric market...oh the colors.

My friend Amy, always ready for an adventure.  She tells the best stories.

Superheroes on the wall at the Ponseti Clinic...

Nick and Melchior plan out a busy day of seeing patients at the clinic.

My favorite veggie market.  
Love chatting with these ladies, and they always ask me how the surgeries are going on the ship.

These sweet ladies let me take a few photos while they were cooking.

Evening time in the cabin, nick learning chords for a new song.

Melchior and his sweet 5 month old baby at his in-laws home in Ouidah.  They made a feast for us when we visited!  So much delicious food and such a warm welcome!

A djembe drum craftsman in Adjarra shows us each step of the drum-making process.

Canoe visit to a village up river.

Home sweet ship after dark.  Our cabin window is just hidden behind the tent on the left side of the photo.

Here's the video from Kat, one of her personal projects.  Amazing!  See if you can find the shots from the Ponseti clinic. 

Mercy Ships Benin Field Service from Kat Sotolongo on Vimeo.