Pharmacy U

Sandy Hewitt’s AFRICA MERCY BLOGPOST: There and back again….


The reality of life aboard a hospital ship is that life at home still goes on.

by Sandy Hewitt

We were called home suddenly in April with the terminal illness of my father-in-law. So instead of wrapping up our field service in Madagascar and closing down the hospital in May, this gracious organization gave us a leave of absence and rescheduled others to take our place while we went home. It is times like this when we feel how far away from Canada we really are.

After going through the palliative care process and grieving the loss of a parent, we were emotionally exhausted but were able to travel and visit friends in family in Canada before heading back to the ship at the end of June. I certainly have a greater respect and understanding of the role of the palliative care nurses here on the Africa Mercy. We arrived back on the ship, docked in Durban, South Africa, on Canada Day, and were festively greeted by our Canadian crew friends. It felt, in many ways, as if we were returning “home” to the ship and we were ready to return to work.

Being aboard the ship during its shipyard maintenance phase is quite different from the fast paced hospital phase. There are fewer crew members and many are projects teams that are hard at work for eight weeks upgrading and maintaining the equipment and systems on board. I took this time to pre-package outpatient and discharge medications for the upcoming field service in Benin, West Africa. Before the 10 months are complete, we will have handed out thousands of Ziploc bags of antibiotics, analgesics, and vitamins besides other meds. We labelled them in French, the official language of Benin, but many speak only their tribal language, so we also labelled them with a pictogram of a rising, mid-day, and setting sun in order to indicate when the medication should be taken without the need for written words.

With most of the pre-packing of meds behind me, I have now secured the pharmacy for our sail to Benin, which is a process unto itself!  Because the ship moves through rough seas, everything must be strapped, zip-tied or fastened to permanent fixtures to avoid major damage. Cupboards and shelves must be either full of medications or creatively rearranged so that nothing slides around. Our storage container, which underwent major maintenance during shipyard to fix its refrigeration system, is now running and ready for Benin’s hot and humid weather but the products inside are packed in a hodge-podge order so that everything lays flat and does not shift. Needless to say, nothing is alphabetical anymore and it will take a few days for everything to be set up and accessible once again when we reach Benin, where drug orders will be waiting for us to receive and find room to store.

We sailed from Durban, South Africa to Capetown. The sail had one day of rough seas in the four-day voyage. I decided to experiment with stopping my anti-emetics because I was feeling fine (not a good idea). On the next leg of the voyage, I will take them faithfully. Nothing like nausea to ensure compliance!  We are expecting a couple of days of rougher sailing as we leave Capetown before the seas co-operate. It’s a wonderful experience sailing when everything is calm. Sitting on the bow at sunset is stunning. It more than makes up for the odd rough day when everyone remains cabin-bound and the dining room is rather empty!

So it’s on to Cotanou, Benin. The people will be different from our friends in Madagascar but needing surgical help just the same, so maybe they are not so different after all. I am thankful to just be a part of it all.


Pharmacist Sandy Hewitt will be blogging regularly on about her experiences as a pharmacist on the Africa Mercy ship.