Millions are suffering needlessly from treatable conditions because they can’t afford the healthcare we take for granted

Mercy Ships UK
(Photo: Mercy Ships UK)


“True happiness is FREE Wi-Fi”

…so says the sign in a café I visited, and who can argue? For most of us, our smartphone has become a necessity – one of life’s essentials!

It wakes us up in the morning, keeps us company on the commute, and provides a constant connection to friends and family, whether they’re in the next street or another time zone. The thought of being without our phone sends some people into a cold sweat. When did you last turn your phone off, rather than set it to silent?

Most of us expect a phone signal and wi-fi wherever we go. It’s become the norm to enter someone’s house and ask for their Wi-Fi password, in the same way we’d ask for a glass of water.

Our phone can certainly feel like an essential, but is it really?

I’m a big fan of Bear Grylls – the heroic Christian adventurer who survives extreme temperatures and wild environments using his wits without the aid of a smartphone! He can find his way through a dense jungle and navigate vast frozen tundra without a compass.

Bear would be the first to tell you what really matters in life. He says the true essentials for survival are Shelter (or ‘protection’ from physical threats), Rescue, Water, then Food, in that order. Food is the last of the four priorities and strangely wi-fi doesn’t feature as an essential… although my children would beg to differ!

When your back is against the wall, and everything in life comes crashing down, it’s not wi-fi or Facebook that you’ll need to survive. It all comes back to the basics… safety, faith in God’s rescue plan, and making sure you don’t forget to eat and sleep!

But somehow, the things that matter most also tend to be the things we can take for granted, like our health, our loved ones, drinking water on tap, and free healthcare: the NHS.

Before I became a dad, I didn’t give much thought to the NHS. I’d never broken a bone in my body and I only needed a couple of routine operations growing up. My attitude changed one summer night when my pregnant wife went into labour with our twins, two months too soon…

I rushed her to the nearest hospital only to find it had been closed down and boarded up. I stood in disbelief. Suddenly, I realised that a hospital and the trained medical staff inside are not something anyone should take for granted.

My wife was in agony. She was in the throes of a risky, premature labour but there was no one to keep my wife and our unborn children safe. There was no one to rescue us. Turns out, Bear was right. When you’re in a survival situation, you do remember what the essentials really are. I found myself desperately praying, “God, please help, there’s no one to help us!”

This is the same prayer that’s cried out by 2 out of 3 people in our world, who still lack access to a genuine essential: safe, affordable surgery when they need it most.

In low-income countries, mothers who are in labour must pay for their own surgeon and everything needed for the surgery, if they need a C-Section. Many can’t afford to pay and so they lose their unborn child.

When we fall ill or we need an operation our first thought is never, “where will I find a doctor?’, or, ‘how will I pay?’ This is because in Western Europe less than 3% of people don’t have access to medical treatment. In sub-Saharan Africa, 93% of people live without access to surgery.

This means that children are becoming disabled or going blind needlessly – when a simple surgery could help them walk or see again. For others, an untreated toothache grows into a disfiguring tumour that threatens their life. These people then endure rejection every day and are even called ‘cursed’.

We have no idea what life is like when the true essentials are taken away. Every year, more than 18 million people die in low-income countries from conditions that require surgical treatment – that’s more than die of HIV/Aids, TB and malaria combined. It’s is a global epidemic and a huge tragedy.

Thankfully, as Christians, the ‘Global Surgery Crisis’ is a tragedy we can change, as the Church. How do I know? Because we’ve done it before…

Down through the centuries, following Jesus’ example, Christians have set up hospitals, founded schools of nursing, and pioneered surgery.

The first hospital was founded by Christians living under Roman rule. Later, St Thomas’ and St Bartholomew’s hospitals were established by monks and Great Ormond Street Hospital was set up by a Baptist.

Christians have always made history in the field of surgery and healthcare, from Florence Nightingale (who founded the first school of nursing) to James Simpson who used chloroform on Queen Victoria when she gave birth and convinced the public it was safe. Dr Simpson is regarded as the father of anaesthetics.

During the last 40 years, two more Christian ‘history makers’ joined this long list of medical pioneers, Don and Deyon Stephens. Following the birth of their son with additional needs, Jean-Paul, Don and Deyon were inspired to follow the model of Jesus by bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.

In 1978, Don and Deyon acquired the first ship and converted it into a hospital. They lived onboard for ten years with their four children, providing free surgery for the poor. Sometimes they had to work in the dark when they struggled to afford fuel for the generator.

And so Mercy Ships was born…

Forty years on, Don and Deyon’s legacy has directly helped people in 56 developing nations. Today, Mercy Ships operates the world’s biggest floating hospital that’s run by a charity, providing over 2,000 free surgeries every year.

What’s more, the ship is still crewed by volunteers! I’ve actually been onboard and seen this wonderful work with my own eyes – it felt like Matthew 25 in action, where Jesus says “I was sick and you looked after me.”

I also saw that Mercy Ships trains local health professionals and renovates hospitals, leaving the nations they visit stronger and better equipped.

Back in the UK, on that summer night in July 2012, my wife and I got back into our car and drove for 20 minutes to a clean modern hospital. We screeched up into the Ambulance Bay and I cried out for help. Within moments, our car was surrounded by nurses and doctors. Once inside, the staff prepped pain relief and switched on state-of-the-art equipment. The NHS was waiting and ready to rescue my family.

Thanks to the faith and sacrifice of history-making Christians through the years, my wife received the care she needed in hospital free of charge and today we have two beautiful twin boys. They recently celebrated their 7th birthday, and every year I can’t help but look back to that frightening night.

Before you scroll or click further on your phone, please take just a moment to thank God for the real essentials in your life, whether food, family or healthcare. And perhaps ask God what part you can play in being a history-maker for those who still lack access to so many of the essentials we can take for granted.

This month saw another history-making moment: the UK government partnered with Mercy Ships for the first time in 40 years. They have agreed to double any donation made to the Mercy Ships #ChangeTheOdds campaign before December 31. If you’d like to find out more and help make history yourself just visit

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Darren Richards is the Church Partnership Manager for Mercy Ships UK. He regularly speaks in churches and is passionate about seeing the Church bring hope and healing to the poor. @mercyshipsuk @darrenvrichards