Follow Dana Perino's Mercy Ships Mission

August 27, 2013 / Written By The Five Staff /

Dana Perino spent a week on-board the Africa Mercy, the world's largest charity hospital ship, for its first visit to Republic of the Congo.

She was on the ship, which is operated by Mercy Ships, for several days during initial patient screening and startup of medical operations. The ship docked in the port of Pointe Noire, Congo, for its 10-month visit.

Mercy Ships is an international charity that offers free surgeries for the poor, community development projects, community health education, mental health programs, agriculture projects, and palliative care for terminally ill patients. It also offers specialty training to improve local delivery of healthcare, allowing the poor to be assisted long after the ship sails. Read more on this at

Dana shares stories from humanitarian trip to Congo

Extended interview: Dana talks to Mercy Ships chef Ken Hatfield

Extended interview: Dana talks to Mercy Ships nurse Ali Chandra

Dana Skypes into the show from the Congo

Perino Journal Entry - August 30th

Well that was an interesting way to end a summer - a week in Pointe Noir, Congo on the Africa Mercy. It wasn't a beach vacation or a place to escape the heat and humidity, but I wouldn't have traded it for the swankiest time share anywhere.

Today we observed a fire evacuation drill with some of the crew playing the role of patients preparing or recovering from surgery. Thankfully, a bit of cloud cover and a light breeze gave a bit of relief to everyone who was waiting outside while those in charge went through their checkss and made sure everyone was accounted for on their lists. Mercy Ships has never had to do a full evacuation in all the years they've been sailing and docked in various ports around the world, but take it from me, they are prepared for the eventuality!

Meanwhile, about fifty patients went through another round of screening and tests with most of them being scheduled for a follow-up visit or for surgery. Some of them will need to take medicines before they can be operated on, while others, like a few of the babies, need to gain some weight before their procedures can be done. Imagine that - being told you have to gain weight! There were a few who were told that, unfortunately, their condition was not treatable with surgery. One woman's tumor was only visible from the outside, on the side of her face; however, further tests showed the doctors that it had grown into her brain. She was gently led to the awaiting vehicle to go home. I hope she didn't feel alone in the world, as certainly there were a lot of hearts that walked away with her.

We also got to spend time with Ali Chandra, nurse extraordinaire and just about the most amazing person I've ever met. She's been on the ship since 2008, and seen many different patients over the years. But this was her first screening as a mom, and she told me it was remarkably different and that having her baby, Zoe, helped her to more fully understand what a parent feels even when their baby just gets a scratch and a cold, let alone a debilitating and possibly untreatable condition. She and her husband and baby will be spending the fall in the U.K. where he will get additional training as an electrician. I asked if she was ready to deal with the abrupt weather change - and while it's something she's thought about, she says it'll all work out. She doesn't worry about things like that, while this afternoon I humbly repacked the pair of shoes I'd sneaked into the suitcase but never wore while in Congo.

From the States, I got a note about making sure to meet Chris Sayon if I could. Chris is a young woman from Liberia. She was a vaginal fistula repair patient a few years ago, and her life was on the line. Unspeakable things had been done to her. Doctors here operated on her and when I found her in the Linen Department, we shared a hug and she asked me to thank those that saved and changed her life. On behalf of those doctors, Chris, I can assure you that you are very welcome indeed.

I've been asked what has been my favorite moment, deepest impression, biggest surprise. And I don't really have an answer for any of those questions, at least not yet. I need to let my thoughts settle. But as we get ready to disembark and start the long journey back to Manhattan, some thoughts:

After 15 years of marriage, traveling together on an adventure that includes mercy and grace can really restore the resolve to making a relationship work. I'm very grateful to Peter as a loving person, especially to me. He dove right into the photography and videography and brought the story to life. Plus he charmed all the ladies with his stories and had the guys rolling with his jokes. Well done and thank you, Mr. Petah!

Grace and kindness are actually at the root of humanity, and yet it is disorienting to be on a ship for so many days and never hear a cross word spoken, or eyes rolled (my specialty), or even a word of gossip here and there. I felt like we were just waiting for a shoe to drop, for something to break the quiet calm of the crew. And yet nothing did. Here you have all of these people from all over the world, working together on a joint assignment to restore hope to the forgotten poor. I marvel at their stoicism and how much FUN they have. What a community. For example, the ship's finance director, John Wall, is expecting a baby with his wife who is back in the States during her pregnancy. He won't be able to join her until around November. He had not heard what the sex of the child was, but Ali had heard from John's wife that morning and it was revealed if the baby would be a boy or a girl. Folks gathered around during ice cream Thursdays (before watching The Five), and a pinata of sorts was hoisted up to the ceiling. They made John turn around three times and then they pulled the string. Blue confetti rained down. Everyone cheered. Yeah, a son to join the two daughters they already have - what joy! What delight! Isn't it GREAT?! You could feel the happiness. It was a wonderful moment, though it seemed to me they have a lot of those on this ship.

And during all of that, the housekeepers and cooks and teachers and doctors and nurses and anesthetists, all were preparing for this Sunday when the patients with appointments will start arriving for their pre-ops. Some of them may never have seen a medical doctor, and if they had they'd been told there was nothing that could be done. But here they'll be, secure on this ship of mercy that is just, frankly, really hard to describe.

I'll be back on The Five next week - thanks for following and traveling with us.

Perino Journal Entry - August 28, 2013

Today was the day that thousands have been waiting for - no, not in Washington, D.C., but in Pointe Noir, Congo where the Africa Mercy will be docked for the next 10 months.

Mercy Ships calls these "assessment days," when potential patients who have heard about the ship are brave and curious enough come to give hope a chance. Many people here either have no access to any basic medical care, or their condition is so severe the few doctors in country are ill-equipped to help. Some have been turned down so many times for help that they've lived for years with punishing pain, gigantic tumors or blinding cataracts. There are many children - some with orthopedic needs, others with untreatable problems, at least not ones that surgery can solve, like Cerebral Palsy.

This morning started months ago for many of the volunteers on the ship, with a lot of them working through the night to get everything set up. Logistics, security, and pacing of the patients. For us, we departed the ship at 6 a.m. and arrived as the sun was rising. Already, a couple of thousand people had lined up with the hope they could be seen by a doctor to help their conditions. The weather was warm but there was cloud cover and a nice breeze. No rain, thankfully!

The first person they meet is a cheerful and warm hospitality greeter. Then they see a screening nurse. This is where the nurses do a very quick assessment and give out a little card that tells them to go through. Colored cards allowed people to go to the right side of the hallway, where they were then taken for registration, case history and finally to a doctor who makes a final decision about whether to schedule a surgery. Those given white cards were escorted to a final stop with an option for a prayer before departing.

Over seven thousand people came through the gate today and were seen by the volunteers. Over 4,200 were given referral cards to move on to the next step to see the doctors. And over the next several months, surgeries will be performed almost daily - some are straightforward, while others are much more complicated and may require additional treatments, operations or therapies. Everyone was treated with the dignity and grace they deserve, though many of them may never have known such kindness or how to process such generosity; there was a feeling that whatever was being done here on earth, someone else, of a higher power, was definitely in charge.

A few observations about this remarkable day:

The nurses have such sweet natures, though don't let that fool you into thinking they aren't tough as can be. I tried so hard not to cry during the assessments, especially once the mother or father was told there was nothing that could be done to help their children. But these nurses didn't cry, as much as their hearts were breaking. Also, I noticed that all of them stressed to the moms and dads that they weren't to blame for their kids' conditions, that they were good mamas and that they were doing the best they could. I imagine it meant a lot to hear someone in uniform, with such knowledge and authority, say those words.

The doctors work extremley well together, consulting with one another and then communicating (often through translators) to the patient what the options are for treatment. Sometimes the doctor advises against a treatment - if a child is too weak or too young for major surgery, for example, there's an infant feeding program that is available to help get the baby to a healthy weight. I learned so much from them about cleft palates, German measles, Cruzon syndrome, and more. They seem to be able to solve multiple problems with whatever is available. I nicknamed them "McGyver MDs." They seems to like that title!

The patients were very...patient. They had a calm, stoic way about them. Accepting with gratitude a chance to see a doctor, and quietly absorbing the disappointment if, unfortunately, there was nothing that Mercy Ships could do for them.

In addition to the medical staff, there is an entire crew from the ship that goes ashore on assessment day to do all matter of jobs - escorting people from the screening to the next stop; providing peanut butter sandwiches, apples and water; carrying a child to the exit so that the mother could have a break after standing in line for hours; and taking photographs of the patients to help identify them and to help chart their progress after surgery. There are also security officers, engineers and people to help entertain the kids with crafts and games.

Tomorrow we will see more activity as dockside screening continues, and we'll get to visit the eye and dental clinic that's being held regularly during the months in port. We also need to wash some clothes!

Perino Journal Entry - August 27, 2013

We have boarded Mercy Africa! Long flights my goodness. Read three books! Slept a bit. Got to take a shower in Germany. Last night stayed at hotel. Very expensive but safe and clean. Food decent – but as this used to be a French colony, that makes sense!

Today we toured the ship all day. Fascinating. Engine room, captain’s bridge, operating rooms, schools for the kids of the volunteers. Tomorrow we depart at 6 am for the assessment site, a local high school. It was reported today that people already are lining up. We were given tshirts to wear so that it is clear that we are with mercy ships. We should be there a full 12 hours. They don’t know how many people will arrive. Some locals are skeptical that surgery can be free.

One guy has come from Nigeria. He has a gigantic tumor on the side of his face. He found mercy ships through an Internet search – so he has Internet access but no access to any medical care. The hope is that the tumor can be removed and that it is not cancer. If he’s a candidate for surgery, he’ll get an appointment card. If he doesn’t, well…those must be the hardest decisions to make and the toughest thing to tell someone who desperately needs help. Thank you for being on this journey with me…