Why Mercy Ships Work

While it may seem like something out of a dystopian sci-fi flick, the concept and mission of the floating hospitals known as “mercy ships” are much more in line with the goals and efforts of early almshouses and hospitals than they are with Mad Max. The word hospital comes from the Latin, hospes, which, while literally translating to “stranger” or “foreigner,” actually means “guest.” Mercy Ships travel to areas where resources are limited and conditions are often unsafe to treat their guests, who without the ship docking near their home, would have almost certainly gone without care.

The History of Hospital Ships

The history of floating hospitals or medical treatment facilities is an old practice. The Roman and Athenian navies both had ships that — due to their names, Aesculapius and Therapia, respectively —were probably hospital ships that traveled with the military to provide aid to injured troops. In the 17th century, it became commonplace for navies to have ships set aside to care for the wounded. In the 1860s, the USS Red Rover was a hospital ship that aided injured soldiers of both the North and South in the American Civil War. World War I and II both saw passenger liners transformed into hospital ships, and the trend continues. These days, most hospital ships are operated by a particular country’s military. Exceptions to this rule are the SS Hope and the Esperanza del Mar, which both belonged to civilian agencies and Mercy Ships, which operate as a nonprofit outside of any government’s ties.

Why It Works

Because 95 of the largest 100 cities in the world are port cities, hospital ships — especially when they aren’t tied to a particular government or agency — can reach a large population in need, and they can do so in a way that skirts the potentially devastating issues land-based hospitals face, especially in more volatile or unstable parts of the world. Clean water, energy needs, zoning, safety concerns and the like are worries that — for the most part — hospital ships can bypass or maneuver. Because Mercy Ships provide free health care, they can meet the health care needs for people who often have no other options. In addition to surgeries, checkups, medicines and more, they also offer community development programs, community health education, mental health assistance and palliative care for people who are dying. In addition to these services, they also begin and operate local agricultural projects as well. In port cities where the poor often have few options when it comes to health care and sometimes even getting basic needs met, a floating hospital ship funded by donations and staffed by volunteers can completely change lives.image003

Why It Has To Work

As health care costs around the world continue to increase beyond what even the citizens of wealthy nations can afford, the poor — especially in developing nations —continue to be disproportionately affected. For example, on the continent of Africa alone, 50 percent of the population has no access to a doctor or a hospital. Worldwide, six million children die every year from preventable diseases like pneumonia or diarrhea. There is a great need, and the flexibility of a transoceanic hospital is one answer to that need.

Hospital ships are a unique way that people get their health care and other basic needs met. Mercy Ships, because they are unaffiliated with a government and have a freedom that allows them to offer services without having to consider diplomatic relations, seem to fill a distinctive role. To date, they have completed almost 600 port visits in over 50 developing countries. Their volunteers have offered services that would have cost those served over $1 billion, including over 60,000 free surgeries and 300,000 dental procedures. Over 2.35 million guests have been seen by doctors and have had health-related needs met that would have otherwise probably not been treated.

That resources must sometimes travel great distances to reach those who need them most is an unfortunate reality of our world. That those resources are made available and ready through hospital ships, however, is another reality of that same world — and a fortunate one at that. 

Statue of Liberty image by U.S. Navy Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres 

About the Author: Darin Weber is a contributing writer. An avid fisherman, he recommends Boat Angel to his fishing buddies when they are looking to upgrade their boats and need a tax write-off.