In 2000, East London plastic surgeon Tertius Venter gave up a life of comfort and a successful career as a plastic surgeon to operate for free on the world’s poor. More than 17 years later, he is still doing so. What made this husband and father choose the road less travelled?
MY LIFE WAS PERFECT. I had a wonderful wife and two children, a successful medical practice, I was living a great life in East London doing work I loved, and we wanted for nothing. I remember feeling very privileged, never quite believing all these blessings could be just for me.
In 2000, a huge ship called the Anastasis appeared in the harbour. This was a Mercy Ship, specifically set up to serve the two-thirds of the world’s population who have no access to safe and affordable surgery.
Gary Parker, one of the long-term surgeons on the ship gave a talk that I attended, and I just knew I had to serve on it. I signed up to work in Gambia for 10 days. Like everyone else on the ship I was a volunteer, responsible for getting myself to the ship, paying for my keep while aboard, and giving my time and skills for free.
In those first 10 days in Gambia, I encountered a level of utter poverty I’d never seen before. I didn’t realise that people could have such great needs. Many patients have massive tumours which take as much as 12 hours of surgery to remove. These come from lack of surgical care: if someone in the West has an unusual growth, their doctor removes it before it has a chance to grow, usually under local anaesthetic.
In the poorest nations where people have no medical access, that growth will become a monstrous disfigurement over many years. Others patients were badly burnt as toddlers and their skin has fused, preventing use of a limb. The surgery we perform is life-changing.
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PHOTO CREDIT: The Africa Mercy and her volunteer staff, all of whom pay to work aboard her serving the poor | Photo © Mercy Ships