Jenny Stoud just before boarding the hospital ship Africa Mercy, which took her to a mission assignment in Guinea. COURTESY JENNY STOUD

When the much-anticipated dental clinic held its grand opening Sept. 3 in Conakry, Guinea, it was the beginning of a two-week experience of a lifetime for Hilton Head resident Jenny Stoud.

A dental hygienist with Parkway Family Dental in Bluffton, Stoud was fulfilling a dream of serving as a team member of Mercy Ships. The non-profit organization provides state-of-the-art medical and dental care around the world, from the platform of a hospital ship to “regions where clean water, electricity, medical facilities and personnel is limited or nonexistent,” according to its web site.

“I’ve always followed them for years, even as a kid,” said Stoud.

The inspiration came from her mother, who had supported Mercy Ships since its founding 40 years ago. Stoud would read the stories that came in the mail and knew she wanted to volunteer one day. She was accepted in January for a position in September, giving her eight months to raise funds for her airfare.

Her assignment was to the ship Africa Mercy.

The Africa Mercy is a converted rail ferry and has been in service with Mercy Ships since 2007. It is the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world.

Stoud’s feeling on arrival in Guinea on Sept. 2 was “scared.”

“You’re in a foreign country, you’re already a little nervous and I had to go through their immigration process where they examined my work visa,” she said, adding that it was not like traveling out of the country with her parents when she was younger.

The ship sent four escorts to get Stoud through the airport. After clearing immigration and gathering her luggage, they headed to the ship. That was when Stoud knew she “wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” as she put it.

“The drive from the airport to the ship was when it hit me. It was the first time I realized this was pretty bad. I had never seen that kind of poverty,” she said. “You see the pictures on TV and you think you’re prepared, but when the smell and sights and sounds hit you. It was life-changing. These people have nothing. They’re just trying to survive.”

Africa Mercy had arrived in Conakry in early August and screened 10,000 patients, scheduling surgeries or dental procedures until June 2019, perhaps even longer, considering the need, Stoud said.

Every day, she and her team took the 30-minute drive to the dental clinic. The entire facility, located within the campus of a small struggling university, was built and equipped entirely from donations to the Mercy Ships charity.

The crew on board numbers 400 and are generally from up to 40 different nations. It is a completely international experience.

“You can sit down at dinner on the ship with seven other people and they’ll be from seven different countries and from all walks of life,” said Pauline Rick, U.S. Public Relations Coordinator for the Mercy Ships.

At the clinic, the day crew was made up of local citizens – students, drivers and various staff members, Stoud said. They would greet the ship’s team at the door and walk with them into the clinic. While she was there, Stoud was assigned a day crew translator and personal assistant. Assitou Bhoye, a young woman who traveled eight hours from her mother and little sister to make a better life for her family, is fluent in English, French and three local tribal languages.

Bhoye is taking courses in engineering and has also learned how to use the hygiene tools to give fluoride treatments to the children, in preparation for when the ship leaves. Stoud said many of the day crew will be capable of continuing many dental hygiene procedures when the ship leaves late next year.

Stoud’s experiences inside the clinic as well as outside were sometimes extreme, from watching her colleagues provide various levels of health care to seeing the results of desperate poverty. Stoud said the best thing was sharing her knowledge with Assitou and watching all of the day crew grow as they learned from the dental team.

“Don’t get complacent and think that there’s not suffering people out there. When you see that image on the TV, actually look at it. It’s happening,” Stoud said. “You get so wrapped up in your own life that sometimes reality can slap you across the face. I now know that the one thing that I will take away from it is I will never be the same and I cannot wait to do this again.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.