Spending two weeks on a cruise ship seems like the perfect escape from winter, but, for Joli Chou, DMD, MD, of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, it was a “working” vacation. She spent most of her time performing surgical procedures on African patients who wouldn’t otherwise get them.
Chou has volunteered her time — and skills — for the past two years, on the Africa Mercy. Operated by Mercy Ships organization, the ship stays docked at an African port for 10 months, providing an array of medical services.
During her stint on the ship, Chou performed from three to five cases (depending on their complexity) each week day. She also taught local surgeons who assisted in the cases and showed the local nurses how to use the medical equipment that’s donated to Mercy Ships.
Many of Chou’s more complex cases stem from a lack of access to treatment. For example, last year an 18-year-old showed up with a huge benign tumor on his jaw, weighing five pounds! Because it was left to grow untreated, he had to undergo multiple surgeries to remove and reconstruct his jaw. In this country, “we’d diagnose it much earlier and try to shrink it with injections,” she said. “But he did very well. He actually smiled.”
Several patients suffered from ankylosis (fused jaw joints). One hadn’t been able to open his mouth for more than 10 years! “It results from infection or trauma that was not treated properly,” she said. “I did many of these procedures while I was there and it was so rewarding. Patients can now eat real food.”
Although Chou took some excursions to land on weekends, the floating hospital is really like a small town, with a bank, shops for necessities and a Starbucks. “We get coffee for a $1 because they donate it,” she said, smiling.
Volunteering to help others has been a part of Chou’s life for many years. Before graduate school, she went to South America to help build houses with a Habitat-like organization. She also goes to Mexico every year to do maxillofacial surgery on kids.
She loves the work on the Mercy Africa not only for its rewarding aspects for patients but also because of the people she works with. “Everyone goes to help — surgeons, nurses, even the cooks —and they go out of their way to do what they can. I feel like everyone works hard to support the same goal.
Although the ship’s limited resources prevent her from doing all she wants to for the patients, “it’s such a positive environment to work in. I plan to go back next year as well, “ she said, adding that “I’m very grateful to members of my department who are so supportive.”
Chou is one of many health-care providers at Penn Medicine who find time in their busy schedules — and lives — to embark of these types of medical missions. Other outreaches have included providing cardiovascular services in Vietnam and orthopaedics in Nicaragua as well as the team of doctors and nurses who flew to Haiti shortly after the devastating earthquake. Read more about outreach efforts, all in challenging conditions very different from those at home, in the forthcoming spring issue of Penn Medicine, the alumni magazine for the Perelman School of Medicine.
Photo caption: Oral & Maxillofacial surgeon Joli Chou checks on one of her post-op patients on the Africa Mercy ship.
Photo credit: Ruben Plomp. © Mercy Ships.