Building The World’s Largest Civilian Hospital Ship: A Q&A with the man leading the Global Mercy to completion

Her name is the Global Mercy, and she’s the world’s largest civilian hospital ship. In the final phase of construction and setting sail in 2021, she will join her sister vessel, the Africa Mercy, to bring world-class surgical care to local patients facing life-threatening ailments throughout West Africa. 

From correcting cleft lips and palates and congenital deformities to removing tumors and restoring eyesight, it is estimated that more than 150,000 lives will be changed onboard the Global Mercy through surgery alone over the vessel’s 50-year expected lifespan. But what does it take to create and complete something this complex and impactful?

That’s a question for the main brain behind the Global Mercy, Jim Paterson, whose journey with Mercy Ships began in 1987 as Chief Engineer onboard the Anastasis before developing and leading the organization’s Marine Operations Department for about 20 years. Recently, he stepped down as the position of Senior Vice President of Marine Operations to focus full time on the completion of the Global Mercy as Marine Executive Consultant. Here, he dives deeper into what it takes to build the largest NGO hospital ship and conveys the positive impact the Global Mercy will have on those in developing countries.

Q: What is the process like to build a custom hospital ship? How long has the process taken?

A:  In short, about 14 years. In 2007, the initial ideas and planning began once the Africa Mercy was in service. During the process of designing and converting the Africa Mercy, we realized there would always be a series of limitations and constraints that come with ship conversions, such as tight living spaces, limited storage space, shortage of public spaces and limited capacity in the hospital wards. When it came time to begin the design process for the Global Mercy, we began by conceptualizing an ideal hospital ship based on our observations and field experience. The conclusion? A much larger vessel. After a series of internal conversations and a vote by the Board, the new ship was approved. From there, construction for the Global Mercy was brokered,  the contract with the shipyard was signed in December 2013 and the first steel cut took place in September 2015. We’ve been constructing and building ever since. Next up is the ship’s Inclining Experiment to make sure everything works together properly. Then finally, the Sea Trials will begin before Mercy Ships officially takes ownership and the Maltese Flag is raised and she cruises to Africa!

Jim Paterson with the starboard pod
Jim Paterson with the starboard pod.

Q: What makes the Global Mercy different from other hospital ships in the world?

A: Since it was entirely purpose-built, the most unique feature is, of course, the hospital. When complete, the hospital alone will boast two decks, span 7,000 square meters and feature all of the amenities of a general hospital on land, including six operating rooms, a CT Scanner, fully equipped laboratory, and more.

The Global Mercy will also be outfitted with state-of-the-art training spaces including two simulation labs with virtual and augmented reality, mannequins and other training tools. A simulated post-op care space, which will allow trainers to simulate local conditions and limitations in order to teach best practices in low-resource environments. 

Lastly, on the machinery side of things, we’ve worked hard to implement the latest technologies and practices – LED lighting, variable frequency drives on electric motors, a way to reprocess water condensate for laundry and more. 

The 174-meter, 37,000 ton-ship, will also feature a 682-seat auditorium, an accredited academy for children, gymnasium, pool, café, shop and library for a crew of 600 live-in volunteers from around the globe representing many disciplines including surgeons, cooks, teachers, electricians and more.

Q: How does the Global Mercy differ from past and current Mercy Ships vessels?

A: There are not too many in which it compares. The main difference between the Global Mercy and our earlier ships, including the Africa Mercy would be the size. More space for the crew, the hospital, training and storage. It is designed to have a smaller shore side footprint with more of the activities able to take place on board – for example pre-and post-op checks and rehab appointments. Theoretically this means a faster deployment and pack up when moving from one location to another.

Q: What will the launch of the Global Mercy mean for Mercy Ships and the continent of Africa?

A: Tangibly, it will double the output from Mercy Ships. Volunteers and patients alike will experience more individual lives enriched by the impact of surgical intervention that would not be possible without Mercy Ships first hand. Additionally, the new technologies and added space for teaching and training local healthcare workers through the Mercy Ships Medical Capacity Building program will multiply the long-term impact in these countries by passing knowledge beyond the ship and into the communities for years to come.

Jim Paterson, Tom Stogner, and team members in front of the GLM.
Jim Paterson, Tom Stogner, and team members in front of the GLM.

Each year, 16.9 million people die due to a lack of access to surgical care, 93 percent of whom stem from sub-Saharan Africa. This is more than three times the number of deaths attributed to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. As continued health crises continue to threaten the stability of already fragile healthcare systems across the world, the Global Mercy stands as a true opportunity to lower that number and make a lasting difference. 

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