The journey of an Australian filmmaker from giving birth prematurely to a ship full of volunteer doctors sailing to West Africa.
After a complicated pregnancy, Madeleine Hetherton, an award-winning Australian filmmaker, gave birth to a premature baby in 2009. Both mother and child were lucky to survive. She recovered relatively quickly, but her son Zeke spent over a year in hospital struggling to breathe. His lungs were damaged from both the premature birth and the invasive measures taken to save his life.
“It was a long, dark journey punctuated by many terrifying admissions into intensive care where Zeke would barely hold onto his life, breath by breath. He was not expected to survive, yet somehow he did,” says Hetherton.
The personal ordeal inspired her to make a film called The Surgery Ship, featuring doctors and nurses who provide free medical aid to some of the most impoverished communities on the planet.
Hetherton followed a ship of volunteer medics sailing from Australia to several stops on the West African coast. They examined several hundred people with ailments ranging from severe tumours to deformities, cases they had never seen before that demanded decisions about who they were able to help and who, unfortunately, they would have to reject.
During the time her son was ill, Hetherton became very close to a number of doctors and nurses – one of them was a volunteer on the Africa Mercy hospital ship.
She explains: “My curiosity was awakened: What would life be like in a part of the world, which has almost no access to modern medicine? I had just come through an experience of intensive modern medicine and even with the most advanced of care, we had only just survived. What could it mean to live in a world where this was not available?”
She tells TRT World: “I think my life started to change before I got to the ship, but making this film was the end point of this realization about the fragility of life and how little we can control in our lives – although living in an affluent country we have the illusion that we do have a lot of control.”
Although the bare minimum of resources on the ship pushed doctors to turn away those patients who needed advanced medical attention, Hetherton could relate to the emotional toll the experience would take on the doctors and nurses.
"My experience as a new mother told me all too well how it would feel for a parent to nurse a critically sick child – and to have no one to turn to for help,” she says.
According to Hetherton, raising the capacity of local health care systems is essential to create a better and long-term solution to healthcare in Africa. “One ship, or even a fleet of ships cannot substitute for a well-resourced, local health system. But this will require stable political and economic conditions, the will of the leaders in the region to focus resources on building these health care systems and investing in training and good governance. It will take time,” she says.
Hetherton has stayed in contact with the children she filmed in Guinea and sends financial support for their schooling and general living expenses. “I visited them a year or so ago when I went back and I hope in a small way that we can help them to realise their potential and their dreams for life. I feel this is a life-long commitment to them now,” she says.