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Article from Uniting Church CrossLight Newspaper – Full text appears below

All at sea over Vanuatu medical mission

It was a magazine article that first sowed the seed. A yachting magazine to be precise and the article was all about transporting medical volunteers – doctors, dentists and nurses, amongst the remote islands of Vanuatu, in, you guessed it, a yacht. The year was 2004.

I’ve always had an interest in boats, and I must say I’ve read a lot of yachting magazines over the years, but this article was different. It struck a chord that seemed to give purpose to my long-held sailing dreams. Only problem was, I knew nothing of Vanuatu, had no medical background and oh, I didn’t have a boat; at least not a boat in which you’d consider such a venture.

But despite my obvious lack of resources, the idea persisted, slowly taking shape in my mind. It was as if a silent voice inside me kept saying, “…you should do that”.

My natural response to the voice was … “how?”.

As the years passed, however, this was to change. So much so, that wherever I turned it seemed the topic of Vanuatu was not far away; the doctors I met who were regular volunteers to Vanuatu, the yachtie who’d just sailed there, further articles I stumbled across that all featured Vanuatu, friends who’d been on holidays there. It all seemed to be telling me something … that silent voice again.

To top it off, after years of “tyre kicking”, in 2006 my brother and I finally bought the boat of our dreams. An old, very solid 53 foot steel yacht of about 25 tons, ideally suited, as it turned out, for taking on such a venture.

Then Mike Clarke, a fellow member at North Ringwood Uniting Church (NRUC) mentioned a chap called Don MacRaild who’d started an eyecare program in Vanuatu some years before in partnership with Rotary, the Uniting Church (Uniting World) and the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.

I called Don and put forward my idea of volunteering the yacht as transport, and the rest as they say is history. It seemed my approach just happened to coincide with his desire for a more reliable way of getting to the most remote islands after a series of flight and boat cancelations on their latest medical tour.

In association with Mike Clarke and as part of the North Ringwood Uniting Church’s overseas outreach activity, the group Medical Sailing Ministries (MSM) was formed and plans developed to assist the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project from May to July this year.

Volunteer crew came from far and wide to assist in running the ship for a total of four months, including Ann Shoebridge, Mike Clarke and Graeme Duke from North Ringwood UC; Graeme Duke also acting as volunteer doctor on the medical clinics conducted throughout July.

A key objective of the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project is to visit places rarely serviced by others. True to this vision, after sailing the boat Chimere, from Australia to Vanuatu, we conveyed our medical-passengers and their gear, to villages barely shown on the chart, let alone the Admiralty Pilot or any of the popular cruising guides of the region.

Demonstrating that they “do more than just eyes”, the medical volunteers were presented with several emergency cases in the course of running the clinics. This included the amputation of a gangrenous finger, plus the re-setting of two broken arms and a leg. There was also the young pregnant woman requiring a caesarean delivery within a couple of weeks. Our arrival enabled her to be evacuated off her island of Mere Lava (along with her mother); an island with few facilities, which receives about two boat visits per year.

In all, a total of 48 clinics were conducted, on 18 separate islands, with 4,221 patients being seen. In addition, more than 2500 pairs of glasses were dispensed, with close to 300 surgical referrals being made for such things as cataracts.

In reflecting on our time in Vanuatu, it’s the happiness, resilience and dignity of the people that is most memorable. Despite a lack of material possessions and the comforts of life taken for granted in the West, we experienced an overwhelming spirit of generosity and appreciation wherever we went.

To say that settling back into suburban life was a challenge after months at sea transporting medical volunteers amongst the remote islands of Vanuatu is something of an understatement. But there remains an overwhelming sense that this was a Spirit-led mission from start to finish.

Thank you to everyone who provided support and encouragement to the Medical Sailing Ministries and congratulations to Don MacRaild and the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project, for the amazing work they are doing, and have been doing for the past 10 years, in transforming lives through improved health and eyecare.

For more information visit www.msm.org.au

Robert Latimer

Member North Ringwood Uniting Church