Med Tech Finds “Grace” Aboard Lab of Mercy Ship

Hospital ship Africa Mercy has high-tech clinical laboratory staffed totally by volunteers

CEO SUMMARY: One intrepid medical technologist has spent almost two decades in volunteer service working in the clinical laboratories of hospital ships operated by Mercy Ships International. As the world’s largest hospital ship, the Africa Mercy contains six operating rooms, a 78-bed ICU and patient ward, along with a clinical lab that is equipped with state-of- the-art instruments and lab systems. Lab professionals have an opportunity to volunteer to serve aboard the Africa Mercy.

MEDICAL LABORATORY PROFESSIONALS looking to volunteer their services may be interested in serving Africa Mercy, the world’s largest hospital ship.

Colleen S. Conley BS, MT (ASCP), CLS is the Medical Laboratory Director for Mercy Ships International and did her first volunteer service with the program back in 1995. She is among the many professional healthcare volunteers working onboard the Africa Mercy, which brings help and hope to Africa’s poorest residents.

Mercy Ships International is a Texas-based, faith-based, non-denominational charity with satellite offices around the world. It operates the Africa Mercy, a ship that features six state-of-the-art operating rooms. It also has an intensive care unit and ward with beds for up to 78 patients, a clinic, and a 438-berth capacity.

“The laboratory aboard the Africa Mercy is comparable to that of a lab in a rural hospital,” noted Conley. “It is equipped with state-of-the art instruments needed to perform a full-range of diagnostic tests and procedures.

“The lab’s test capabilities include hematology, biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, urinalysis, serology, and tropical medicine,” she added. “It also has a blood bank and can handle cytology and histology specimens.

We aren’t equipped to do DNA testing, but we can do stains for histology assessment,” noted Conley. “These specimens are analyzed by remote volunteer pathologists, who are sent the dried stains by mail. Results are returned to us electronically.”

 Digital Images for Cytology

For cytology specimens, the lab uses a Nikon Coolscope Digital Microscope to capture digital images of tumor biopsies and transmit them to an Internet storage site. Remote pathologists log on to the lab’s website and download images for analysis, said Conley, noting that this technology allows the ship’s doctors to get results back quickly, even in West Africa.

“There are similarities in running a lab aboard the ship, but also challenges not ordinarily encountered on land,” she stated. “Both space and geographical constraints present logistical issues. For example, lack of room for large instruments and the remote locations visited by our ship limit our laboratory equipment choices.

“This lab is very technologically advanced and automated,” noted Conley. “But when considering instrumentation and procedures for use in West Africa, we have to look at what can be sustained. For instance, it can take weeks to find an engineer to fix equipment that breaks down.”

Africa Mercy’s lab has three full-time lab technicians, plus temporary volunteers, all of whom come from nations around the world. “While diversity is very exciting and rewarding, it can make it hard to staff a lab and get everyone to gel,” Conley continued. “Additionally, the continuous changeover in personnel—combined with the ship’s movement from port to port—means that the environment is constantly changing, and we’re always in a training mode.”

Additionally, volunteers often need to brush up on lab skills like phlebotomy, which they may not routinely use on their regular jobs. Conley explained that the operating room depends on the ship’s “walking blood bank” of volunteers for all needed blood products, so lab technicians should be able to screen donors and draw blood.

 Advanced Lab Technologies

“The heart of the matter is that working on the Africa Mercy is incredibly rewarding,” declared Conley. “It is rare to find an opportunity in these regions where you can use advanced clinical lab technologies and skills to help,” adding that “the Africa Mercy provides an advanced hospital setting in a third-world environment, where there is no access to high-tech medical services.”

Laboratory and other medical professionals interested in volunteering on the Africa Mercy can explore short- and long-term volunteer opportunities posted on Mercy Ships International’s website at: While laboratory staff positions require a two-year commitment, she noted that there are frequent openings for temporary lab volunteers for tours lasting two to three months.

Africa Mercy’s Volunteers Must Provide Resources

IT WAS A THREE-MONTH TOUR in the ship’s galley of the Africa Mercy which was Colleen Conley’s first volunteer service back in 1995.

“I fell I love with the charity and organization, so the next year I quit my job and volunteered as a lab tech,” she said.

Being a volunteer on the Africa Mercy requires sacrifice. Volunteers must pay their own way, and there are no stipends to help with expenses. Room and board fees range between $167 and $525 per month, depending on the volunteer’s country of origin and length of tour.

“Additionally, volunteers are responsible for their own associated travel costs, immunizations, passports, and other personal expenses, including health insurance,” stated Conley. “Volunteers must also purchase emergency evacuation and repatriation insurance.”

Conley receives financial support from family, friends, and churches, whose members believe in the work of this charity, but cannot volunteer. Transitioning from a clinical to administrative role, she is now based in Virginia and travels when needed aboard ship.

Conley admitted that her financial future is a big question mark after almost two decades of volunteer service, as there’s no nest egg for retirement. But she has no regrets and wouldn’t trade her life and experiences on the Africa Queen for any amount of money or security. “I guess I just have to wait and see,” she observed, “and have faith that I will be OK.”


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