Earlier this year the President of the Oral Health Foundation, Janet Goodwin, paid a life changing visit to Benin in West Africa to observe the remarkable work that Mercy Ships undertake to bring healthcare to some of the most in need communities around the world.
Mercy Ships are a team of nurses, doctors, surgeons, dentists and crew members from all over the world, coming together and donating their time to help on board the world's largest non-governmental floating hospital.
As a floating hospital, they can sail directly to some of the world's poorest people to deliver life-saving medical care and provide safe, state-of-the-art facilities in order to treat them.
Together, they have helped transform the lives of more than two and a half million people in the poorest countries of the world since 1978.
During her visit, Janet kept a diary of her experiences; here is her first-hand account of a visit which will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Tuesday 21st February 2017
I met the rest of our party at 4:30am in Heathrow airport, the anticipation and excitement was rising as we all introduced ourselves and readied ourselves for our journey.
We first flew to Brussels where we changed to go onto Cotonou in Benin, where we arrived into the hustle and bustle of a frantic airport before being bussed to ship I initially could not believe the size of the ship, it was very impressive, much larger than I had expected.
We had our photos and ID taken followed by a quick induction of do's and don'ts and shown to our cabin, it was all very real now.
After looking at the packed itinerary for next few days and a quick walk around the top deck I collapsed into bed ready for the 6:30 start the next morning and the real work to begin.
Wednesday 22nd February 2017
After an early breakfast, Rene, our chaperone, split us into 2 groups, my group was to be given a tour of the hospital wards.
The wards were very busy and were split with a pre-treatment assessment room which housed children adults, males, females, and their relatives. Here the surgeons assessed their needs and informed either them or their carer what treatment was needed.
Patients had been assessed previously within their own villages/towns or in the medical tents on the docks, everything was very well orchestrated, and the patient were in good spirits.
The patients presented with a huge variety of problems; everything from tumours to cleft palates and disformed hands and feet. In between the assessments, the chaplaincy came into the rooms and helped cheer the patients up with songs and music contributing to a very happy atmosphere, some to the children were even playing in the corridors, laughing and enjoying the experience, it was all very lovely.
The main surgeon on this day was Dr Mark. He was brilliant with the patients, making sure, through interpreters when necessary, that they were aware of what was going to happen to them that day and following on from then I was very impressed that he took time from his busy day to explain to us how the system worked, and the protocols in place to protect the patients and all who worked there.
It was amazing to follow the journey from assessment to operation; the operation rooms were obviously out of bounds due to infection control procedure, but we could observe through porthole windows.
The sterilisation zone was a slick very efficient area that dealt with everything from each of the theatres.
Following lunch, we were briefed on who was on the ship, how it functioned and how many patients could be seen, we were also told what went on outside the ship onshore which added another fascinating dimension.
We were then taking to an area on the decking where patients can go in the afternoons for fresh air, recuperation, and friendship. This was a great opportunity to speak with the patients and hear about their treatments, it was all a very positive and uplifting experience.
In the evening, we had supper joined by quite a few other people, including the ship's captain, before retiring to bed exhausted after was a truly remarkable day.
Thursday 23rd February 2017
The next morning, we were woken at 6am by a fire drill, today held in store a trip off the ship to see the work Mercy Ships carried out on in the community.
We were taken on a tour of a local hospital, it was mainly the grounds as the wards are full and we did not want to get in the way, everyone very friendly but we witnessed a lot of poverty.
We then went on to the eye hospital, cataracts are very prevalent in the region and Mercy Ships provides valuable treatments for this condition as part of their work.
Some of the people we met had suffered from it since birth and at the age of 20 - 40 they were only just seeing their husbands, wives and children properly for the very first time, as you can imagine this was a very emotional experience, and very humbling.
We then went onto Hope House, this is where people from out-laying villages that need to visit the ship daily for aftercare can stay at before they have treatment.
It was a lively place with people cooking, washing clothes' and children wanting to play with you and hold your hands even with their faces or feet bandaged they laughed and smiled to be with you. Later, back on ship, we had a meet and greet with the British crew members, we introduced ourselves and talked about our background and interests.
Everyone on board was so helpful and welcoming. I had a long discussion with two dental nurses who invited me to a seminar the following morning about the dental centre. We ended the day with a community meeting in the ship's main auditorium.
Friday 24th February 2017
My last day on ship.
The dental seminar gave me a very interesting insight into the dental team's valuable work in Benin, the work they carry out (up to 100 pts a day), and of the research and minor oral surgeries they perform which change people's lives. We then went on a trip around the Academy which provides education for children of the volunteers who bring family on the ship with them.
It was very comprehensive and impressive in terms of equipment and the accreditation standard they need to meet for the qualifications they help deliver. Next I finally had the opportunity to visit the ships dental clinic. Patients arrive on a Monday morning and are assessed for their needs, after which they are then allocated a day in which to come for treatment.
The patients wait in a large waiting room where they receive vital oral health education and also have a sing-along! The main clinic has seven chairs for adults and two for children, the main aim of the clinic is to alleviate pain, but they do provide other treatments when necessary.
Is was obvious to me from what I was told that they could be helped with more oral health resources, and volunteers, both short and long term. On our final afternoon went out to the local agricultural centre, and observed students giving their thesis presentations on how they could improve the lives of people in Benin through more efficient and effective farming techniques.
This allowed us to finish our trip on a true high note for the future and round off a what had been a remarkable journey.
It was then back to the ship, pack and say our goodbyes, I was sad to leave, but what an experience!
Mercy Ships and the Oral Health Foundation have come together and pledged to strengthen their fight against unnecessary oral health problems around the world. The work of Mercy Ships in Benin is indicative of the problems repeated across the world and the two charities are committed to learning from each other and helping each other to bring smiles to more people globally.
Mercy Ships are the official charity partner of National Smile Month, together we are looking to improve the education and knowledge of children, parents and carers they will give them the tools to reduce oral health inequalities, especially in children, around the world.
Please donate to National Smile Month and show your support for the valuable work we do together at www.smilemonth.org/donate.