Sunday, March 27, 2011


Freetown, Sierra Leone

Mass screening #2.  At 14.00 on Friday, March 25th a group of 9 of us, including the Ship Security Officer, left the Africa Mercy to head to the site where the screening would take place the following morning.  We arrived at the site to find very few people already there and were able to take our time unpacking our gear from the rig and setting up 'camp' as we would be staying overnight.  We also took a few minutes to figure out radio call signs for each other.

We split off in a few different directions to tackle various tasks and begin setup of the line.  This time the line setup was along a roadside with a wide shoulder so there wasn't room for a mass of people to gather in one area.  Also, there weren't already a bunch of people who had claimed a space so establishing the line went incredibly smoothly.  In no time we had a single file line established with everyone sitting and no sense of tension or stress.

Some laminated posters had already been prepared (thanks to whoever did that) so that we could show people what kinds of things we treated and we were able, from the beginning, to ask quite a lot of people to leave the line as they were there for things that we couldn't treat.

At 17.15 I went to our field kitchen to prep a simple supper and get some hot chow into the guys as they came in shifts to eat.  I then re-assumed my post on the line and we all generally had a great time chatting with people as they joined the line.  It certainly wasn't easy to say no to people and turn them away but it kept the line much shorter and kept them from the frustration of waiting all night just to be told no in the morning when they finally made it to the beginning of the line.

We rotated out every so often to grab something to drink and use the bathroom or just sit for a few minutes to give our feet a break.  Then it was back to the line.  There were a few minor incidents of people who needed to be told a bit more forcefully that they couldn't stay in the line because we couldn't help them or would try to tell one of the other guys why they were there in hopes of being told they could stay but no one we saw was belligerent or angry, just disappointed.

At some point all of us started to drag a bit as the night wore on but for me, and most of us I think, our desire to see this through as a counterpoint to the tragedy and frustration of the first screening kept us going.  At 02.00 the Off Ship Programs team arrived on scene to assist and give us a chance to have a break.  We regrouped as a team for some coffee (thanks Tracy) and to have our team leader (call sign Papa Smurf) read us a story (thanks Sam for bringing Green Eggs and Ham along).  Shockingly the ex Special Forces Security Officer didn't actually read us the story but did appreciate the joke.

A little after 04.00 the rest of the security team showed up to help with the line and set up stations inside the screening compound.  

After a bit of a break we went back out to work the lines with the Off Ship Programs team.  The line started to pick up around 05.00 and the Off Ship team did an awesome job of keeping it single file and pre-screening people.

I was partnered with one of the guys (call sign 'Baloo') and we were stationed at the head of the line to keep things flowing nicely and ensure the head of the line didn't surge forward as groups were brought up to the medical screening team.  I was called away to assist at the back at one point as things got a bit unruly but that settled down quickly and I rejoined Baloo at the front.  One of the nurses came out (thanks Becca) and did an amazing job of doing further pre-screening the thin the lines even more.

After the lines opened at 07.00 everything went absolutely great.  We reached the end of the line by 08.30.  The medical staff, both outside the gate and in, did an amazing job as did the other volunteers who had come to pray with people we couldn't help and escort patients from station to station.

Those of us who had been there overnight left at around 09.30 to head back to the ship as the rest of the screening team registered the patients inside the compound.  A huge thanks to Lourens who drove us back and did an awesome job, especially as none of us were in any condition to be driving after 30+ hours without sleep.  We arrived back on the Africa Mercy exhausted, dirty, and incredibly grateful of the experience and God's goodness and redemption.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


That word has a whole new significance to me.

On Monday, March 7th I woke up at 3.00am to get breakfast ready for our 'security' team (a bunch of crew members who are not at all security trained but led by our awesome retired US Army Security Officer), which I was a part of.  We were on the roads of Freetown by 4.00am and to the National Stadium by 4.30am.   Why?  Because Monday the 7th was Screening Day.  We planned to see several thousand people in desperate need of life-changing surgical intervention.  On arrival there were around 1000 people already there.  First order of business, after a quick walk around the stadium to familiarize ourselves, was to try to organize the crowd already there.  That proved to be a huge task, and one that we never managed to wholly succeed at.

The tension and desperation were palpable from zero hour.  A large number of people already there were pressed against the entry gate in hopes of being some of the first through to be screened.  Arguments and quarrels were almost non-stop.  We walked or squeezed our way amongst the crowd ensuring them that everyone would be seen.  The level of need was incredible as we saw many people with exactly the kinds of things we can treat; enormous facial tumors, cleft lip and palates, club feet, etc.

We tried to move the line from the back end to free up some space near the gate - to no avail.  Every time we managed to forge an open space, people from some angle would always scramble forward to fill it.

Well, there is a big time gap here and I'm leaving out a lot of details but, although I continually felt the peace of God within myself, it was obvious the same was not true of the crowd.  The tension and pressure continued to build over the next few hours, even as we began to allow entry a few at a time through a 'man' gate just to the side of the big double door swinging gate that we kept locked shut.  People pushed and clamored to squeeze through each time the gate was opened.  As it seemed that their desperation was reaching an emotional breaking point, there was a physical one.  The closure on the big gate broke under the continual strain of a seas of bodies pressed against it.  What happened next it difficult to articulate.

I spent 10 years in fire and EMS.  I saw a lot of gruesome, heart-wrenching things.  Only losing a baby to a fire just out of the fire academy comes close to the anguish of those few brief moments after the gate gave way.  The first rows of people stumbled under the lack of physical barrier in front of them and pressure behind.  They ended up on the bottom of the pile as the crowd, seemingly in excitement of seeing the gate opened, surged forward.  What followed I cannot describe any way other than a mass of tangled human flesh and screaming voices.  Faces contorted in fear and anguish as the pile grew and those on the other side frantically pulled at exposed limbs in an effort to extricate those being crushed.  And still they came.  That short moment seemed a lifetime.  Those sounds are ones I will never forget.  Nor will the image of the aftermath be one that fades from memory.  After helping the last few people from the pile I looked down to see several unconscious bodies strewn about the pavement in varying abnormal, prone positions.  Frankly, I was in shock.  I was just beginning to check the first one when someone said to me, "let's get them inside".  I hoisted the first man I came to and drug his limp form up the short flight of steps into the stadium where medical personnel began to tend to him.  Others were extricating the other bodies.  In the end one man was killed, two sustained serious injuries, and many were hurt.

Because of the desperate need we made another attempt to quiet the crowd and see more patients, even after the tragedy.  However, it became apparent that it was likely another similar event would occur as the crowd once again pushed forward against the gate.  A decision was made to call off the rest of the screening, for the safety of everyone involved; the crowd, the police, and Mercy Ships crew.

This account is certainly abridged and simplified.  There were far too many events, emotions, and actions to possibly document them all in a blog post.

At any rate, I titled the blog shattered and mentioned that it has new significance to me now.  That is for several reasons:

- a life was shattered
- the hopes and dreams of many who came to receive appointments for life-changing surgery were shattered
- our hopes and dreams of bringing hope and healing that day were shattered
- emotions were shattered
- innocence was shattered, as there were some crew there who were experiencing this moment as their first West African experience, some of them only 18 years old.
- I am shattered, in the British English sense of being utterly and wholly exhausted. 

Others may have experienced other ways of being shattered.  Hopefully no one's faith was shattered but for many it has certainly been shaken. 

And still, life goes on.  We are still setting up a field service.  There is still much to be done to work with the government, to hold teams on board together, to plan for the next screening, and somehow, to try to meet the individual needs of so many who are grieving and processing in many different ways.

There is anger, fear, confusion, grief, sadness, and, for me, a sense of helplessness.  And yet.  I still cannot answer the question, "where was God in all of that?".  And yet.  I have not come to a place of reconciliation in my heart over the contrast between our mission of bringing the light of Christ through physical healing and hope and the tragedy of the gate.  And yet.  I still find myself wondering, "what could we have done differently?  What could I have done differently?"  And yet.

And the depths of my soul the Spirit of God is moving.  During the worship portion of our community meeting on Thursday following the event I could not help but cry out in worship of this God that I love and who loves me more than I can ever fathom.  "I believe Lord.  Help my unbelief."

Please pray for the people of Sierra Leone.  Please pray for the family of the man who was killed and those who were injured.  Please pray for the crew of the Africa Mercy.  Please pray for my family.  Please pray for me.  Please pray that through feelings of grief, sorrow, anger, fear, heartache, helplessness, abandonment, confusion, mistrust, and everything else that everyone is struggling with that relationships with either be established or built with Jesus and that we would all be better equipped to serve the calling and bring glory and honor to His name.

Shattered and Hopeful,

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Other Side

We struggle (are struggling) to raise financial support for serving here.  One of the biggest barriers we face is that we are not 'traditional' missionaries.  We don't live in mud huts, translate the bible, plant churches, or pass out bible tracts.  We are a hospital ship.  But I'm not a doctor.  Or a nurse.  Or an anesthesiologist.  I don't directly change the lives of patients.  My department and I provide services that allow for an environment in which those surgeries can take place.  Frankly, they couldn't really happen without us.  We also minister directly in very real ways, everyday, to both the crew and day volunteers.  But as I was thinking about all of that and how difficult it is to communicate how Dara, the kids, and I play integral roles in what we do and how frustrating it is to know that I don't always do a good job of finding ways to communicate it, I remembered something.

There are hundreds of people on the 'other side' who are even more non-traditional missionaries, who have an even more difficult time raising support, and who, at least to some extent, struggle with personal feelings of disconnectedness with what is going on here on the ship and, perhaps, sometimes wonder if what they do really matters.  It does.  We could not be here without them.  The poorest of the poor would not receive hope and healing without them.  They are truly the unsung heroes of the kingdom of God and what He is at work doing here in West Africa.  They are the staff of the Mercy Ships International Operations Center in Texas.  If any of them are reading this blog I want you to know how much my family and I value you and how essential you are to the successfully achieving the mission of Mercy Ships (and therefore the mission of God).  The same goes for all of you working in Mercy Ships National Offices around the globe.  You are storing up immeasurable treasures in heaven and you will undoubtedly hear the tender voice of the Lord saying to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant". 

Please also accept from the Koontz family, on behalf of the crew of the Africa Mercy (I don't think they'll mind my taking this liberty), a heartfelt thanks for being who you are; for your friendship, your commitment, your support, and the example of humility in service that you set.