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Skills in demand on missions of mercy


A dentist is preparing to travel to Africa where he will help people in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Mr Bob Russell (59) of Westgate Mews, Southwell, will fly to Liberia next month where he will join the dental team on a ship run by the Christian charity, Mercy Ships.

Three million people live in Liberia but only four dentists work there.

Mr Russell and his wife, Mrs Georgina Russell (57) will spend a month on the MV Africa Mercy, the world’s largest charity hospital ship.

Mr Russell is a semi-retired locum dentist working in Lincoln. His involvement in Mercy Ships began shortly after he retired from his practice in Hucknall in 2003.

His first trip was to Honduras in 2004 on the Caribbean Mercy and he has since visited a number of African countries, including Ghana, Benin and Liberia.

Mr and Mrs Russell join the MV Africa Mercy twice a year, staying for a month at a time, and help carry out the mission of Mercy Ships to provide hope and healing in the world’s poorest places.

Both are committed Christians.

They said most of the volunteers were inspired by their faith, but a Christian faith was not essential to serve on the ship.

Mr and Mrs Russell are members of Sherwood Forest Community Church in Blidworth.

They moved to Southwell 21/2 years ago from Papplewick.

They have two children, Dr Tim Russell (30) of Glasgow and Miss Charlie Russell (29) of Nottingham.

At 152m long, the MV Africa Mercy has accommodation for more than 450 volunteers, six operating theatres and a 78-bed ward.

The volunteers come from more than 40 different countries.

Everyone living on the ship, including the captain, is a volunteer and must pay for their own accommodation and food, at a cost of around £75 a week, as well as their travel to the ship.

Each volunteer has different skills. Surgeons, dentists and nurses work alongside builders, cooks and cleaners.

The ship is in port for months at a time, usually on the east coast of Africa, and people either visit the ship to be treated or attend land-based surgeries set up by the volunteers.

Before arriving in a country, the ship first needs permission from the government.

A team goes ahead of the ship to meet with members of the government and search for suitable locations to hold surgeries and health screenings.

The sessions are often in football stadiums and attract thousands of people.

The Mercy Ships’ dental surgery is created in towns and villages near the port with equipment, including generators and cables to provide electricity and dentistry tools, taken from the ship.

On a previous visit to Liberia, Mr Russell went to a prison in Monrovia, the capital, to treat inmates. It was the first time a dentist had visited the prison.

Mr Russell said the last time he was on the ship, in Liberia in July, he saw around 60 people a day, for five days a week, and extracted just under 1,000 teeth.

“You do the maximum you can do,” he said.

“The type of work done over there is not like the work here.

“People come with big swellings and inflammation in their mouth. Many have suffered with it for five or six years and are in extreme pain.”

Mr Russell said some had tumours and oral cancers. He said a dentist might see the conditions once in a career in England, but one he saw three times in one week in Africa.

Routine work, such as fillings, is carried out but they deal with those with the worst problems first.

As well as providing medical care, Mercy Ships volunteers are involved in development programmes in communities, such as digging wells to provide clear drinking water or supplying building materials and skills to help communities recover from conflict.

Mrs Russell, who is a retired teacher, is involved in an adult education programme.

She uses her skills as a trained phoneticist to teach basic English and numeracy.

“The whole infrastructure of society in Liberia has broken down since the civil war, including provision for education,” she said.

Mrs Russell said they trained adults to teach others in the community and also helped them make the best of the limited resources they had for learning.

An example of that, she said, was that communities often had a lot of empty cement bags at the end of building projects so they were washed and used to write on.

Mrs Russell is also involved in setting up family enterprises within communities.

The ship often returns to a country it has visited to check the progress of the programmes the volunteers helped set up.

Although it was hard work, Mr and Mrs Russell said they got far more from their month on a Mercy Ship than they put in.

“For the people we help it is everything. Every night there are people still waiting in the queue to be treated and that queue will never end,” said Mr Russell.

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