A physiotherapist from the Royal Free London is swapping her job in Camden for life aboard a ship 3,000 miles away in Africa. 

Sarah McGowran, a paediatric physiotherapist, will be living and volunteering on board hospital ship, The Africa Mercy, based in the port of Conarky in Guinea, West Africa, for the next three months.

Sarah works in community paediatrics in Camden, including a day each week on the paediatric ward at the Royal Free Hospital. She is leaving the UK at the end of August to take up her new role. There she will be carrying out post-surgery rehabilitation for adults and children and also for those with disabilities who require surgery.

The Mercy Ships provide specific surgeries to adults and children who in many cases don’t have access to any healthcare. This can include removal of benign tumours, removal of fistulas for women post pregnancy and delivery and orthopaedic surgeries for children and treatment for cleft palate.

There are 400 members of staff on the ship at any one time and approximately 2,500 surgeries are completed each year.  Staff include a range of volunteers including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, bakers, cleaners and engineers. There is an intensive care unit and wards on board the ship as well as a CT and MRI scanner and there are rehabilitation tents on land.

Sarah said: “Time is also set aside time to teach local healthcare professionals, and members of the community, new skills that can continue to be used after the ship finishes its service for the year. 

“Part of this teaching will include the Ponseti technique for children with club foot, something which I have observed already in action at the Royal Free Hospital and now I will be able to assist in this clinic on board the ship. 

“In my role as a children’s physiotherapist at the Royal Free Hospital I’ve set up a clinic for toe walking children, this is a condition I will also be providing teaching on while on board, which is very exciting.”

To fund the expedition Sarah organised various events and set herself some challenges. Earlier this month she ran her first 10k race completing three loops of London’s Regent’s Park in 30 degree heat.

She said: “I borrowed one of our teaching doll babies – baby Molly and strapped her to my chest. I wanted to gain a very small insight into how it might feel to be a mother or father in Guinea, who will be carrying their baby in the heat for many hours to bring them for treatment on the mercy ships.”

Sarah, who is also a qualified Pilates instructor, has been running classes for members of staff that work at the Kentish Town Health Centre site and also held a bake sale in order to help raise funds. 

She said: “To go and work with the mercy ships is not a decision I have made lightly. I know it will be hard work and there will be challenging things I’ve never seen before. 

“I really want to use the skills I’ve gained through having access to education, to give something to others who haven’t had the same opportunities or access to even primary healthcare. It reminds us how truly privileged we are to have our NHS and how we should share this knowledge and kindness with others.”

If you would like to sponsor Sarah go to the mercy ships sponsorship website: https://www.mercyships.org.uk/donate/. Select ‘support a crew member’ and type in: Sarah McGowran, code #4985.