Hope floates to Sierra Leone
by Sarah Massah
A 23-year-old Port Kells woman is making the transition back to her White Rock dental assistant job after spending a month in Sierra Leone, providing medical care to people in need.
For Sonya Van Hove, returning home last August to the structured daily routine at her dental office was a shock after working in Africa, where patients would wait the whole day to see a dentist.
“Adapting back home to an office here, I had to reacquaint myself with the different types of procedures,” Van Hove said. “Coming home, I see and understand the benefits of having the structure of a schedule and appointments.”
Van Hove, who also went to Uganda in 2009 as part of her practicum at Douglas College, said she ventured to the West African country in July to put her skills to work in order to provide some much-needed relief.
“When I went to Africa for the first time, I saw the need for dental work and the hope that these people have and I wanted to go back,” Van Hove said. “It’s something I love and it gets me excited to bring them the hope that they need.”
For this trip, Van Hove worked onboard the Africa Mercy, which is operated by Mercy Ships, an international Christian charity operating hospital ships in developing nations, along with 400 crew members and volunteers from more than 40 different countries.
While in Sierra Leone, Van Hove saw firsthand the desperate need for medical assistance – a stark contrast to the care available in Canada.
Photo: Sonya Van Hove and colleagues on the ship Africa Mercy.
“Comparing our world to theirs, they have way less than we do,” Van Hove said. “Often a Sierra Leonean would be cast out from their family or village if they had an abnormality, whether it be swelling from a dental concern, bow legs or a facial tumour. Helping with these health problems would often allow the person to be welcomed back to their village.”
Van Hove encountered hundreds of patients who required dental work while in Africa. Every Monday and Thursday the dental clinic would have line-ups of more than 200 people. Early in the morning, the dental staff would go through the line and pick out the people who needed immediate attention.
Depending on staff, Van Hove said there could be between 45 to 65 patients a day, all who had to undergo dental procedures. By the end of September, the Africa Mercy had helped 7,000 patients while in Sierra Leone, but one patient stands out for Van Hove.
A 16-year-old girl named Fatima had an infected tooth causing her so much pain that the anesthetic was not working properly on her. Despite the immense amount of pain the girl was in, she insisted on completing the procedure, Van Hove said.
“She wanted this done and she didn’t know when she would be able to see a dentist again,” Van Hove said. “The tooth ended up breaking and cracking and the roots were stuck in her jaw, making her scream every time we touched them, but she got through it. There wasn’t much I could do but hold her hand and try to comfort her and she was so thankful for that and so appreciative of the work.”
Even when Van Hove was not working she said she was welcomed into communities with open arms, often invited to visit homes or go to church with the Sierra Leoneans.
The experience she had working in the country inspired her new motto to live by: be bold.
“Stepping out of my comfort zone was one thing I learned how to do. Going to a different country is scary, but I learned so much about the people,” Van Hove said. “And they were so open and gracious, just sharing their lives with us.”
According to Mercy Ships, the Africa Mercy is the largest floating hospital in Sierra Leone. Since 1978, more than $808 million has been provided in services to developing nations, including more than 47,000 operations, according to the charity.
For more information, visit www.mercyships.ca