Mercy Ship trip to Africa delayed by Ebola

Susan and Mike Silverstein are putting a positive spin on the delay of their trip on a Mercy Ship. (Mike and Susan Silverstein, Handout / August 19, 2014)

The scourge of Ebola in Africa is putting a dream an Elmhurst couple have nurtured for several years on hold — for now.

Two years after selling their house, quitting their jobs and completing eight weeks of rigorous training, Mike and Susan Silverstein say they are more than prepared to begin a voyage that would take them off the coast of Africa to work with people in dire need of health care.

The Ebola epidemic, however, has delayed the couple's deployment with Mercy Ships, a nonprofit that operates hospital ships providing health care and specialized surgeries to people in Africa. For now, they remain in the Chicago area until they are cleared to go.

"We don't want to put our crew or any of our patients at risk. We're taking time to assess the situation," said Michelle Bullington, program design director for Mercy Ships.

The ship, which is currently docked in the Canary Islands, was due to sail last week for the port of Cotonou, Benin, for 10 months of service. The ship's departure is delayed because of the virulence of the Ebola outbreak in neighboring Nigeria, said Bullington.

This is the ship's second delay. In April, a planned deployment to Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak began in December, was canceled. The ship's destination was changed to Benin because, at the time, the Ebola epidemic was not viewed as a threat there.

Though they are meanwhile crashing with friends and keeping their clothing in their car, the Silversteins, who have three adult children and one grandchild, are keeping a positive outlook.

"It gives us an opportunity to visit with family and friends," Susan said. "It's been an extended vacation for us. I'm enjoying it."

Mercy Ships is taking other precautions, including prohibiting crew members from visiting countries affected by Ebola, a deadly virus that causes bleeding inside and outside the body. Two American missionaries recently came down with the illness while working in Africa. They currently are being treated in the United States.

Although the 16,500-ton ship is furnished with high-tech equipment, state-of-the-art facilities and staffed by doctors and other health care providers and volunteers, it is not equipped to treat Ebola because patients stay in multibed wards.

"We're not configured to treat Ebola. We don't have the proper isolation," Bullington said.

The ship offers various surgeries, including maxillofacial, plastic reconstructive, orthopedic, and general. It also provides dental care and eye care, and works with local governments and health care providers to train practitioners and improve local health care delivery systems.

The ship is manned by a crew of 450 and about 1,000 volunteers over 10 months. Some do stints of just a few weeks while others, like the Silversteins, spend up to two years on the ship.

To prepare for their volunteer roles, the Silversteins trained for six weeks in Texas and two weeks in Haiti. Susan, 53, is a former nurse educator, and Mike, 60, was a sales consultant. They decided to volunteer on the ship after learning about it at their church.

"We started investigating it, and it became apparent we were called to do this," Mike said.

Susan's role on the ship will be to coordinate hospital workers who perform such tasks as translating for patients, transporting them and making beds. Mike will manage a fleet of 24 Land Rovers that are used to transport volunteers on shore. Those visits may be to prisons, orphanages or other facilities.

"I'm responsible for gathering up the teams of 10 or 12 people and going to those places," he said. "It's a ministry to go and play with the kids, love on the kids and talk to people. It builds relationships."

All of the crew pay their own way aboard. The Silversteins have used some of their own money and received donations from family and friends. They estimate it will cost them about $30,000.

Despite the delay, the Silversteins are confident that they will realize their dream of working on a Mercy Ship. If the trip to Benin is canceled, Bullington said Mercy Ships will find another country to serve. She said a decision on whether to go to Benin will be made by the end of August.

She said the group started working on the continent in 1991 in Togo.

"We're committed to serving in Africa," she said. "We don't want anyone to think we're leaving or abandoning the continent."

Whatever happens, the Silversteins plan to take it in stride.

"We make plans, and God laughs," Mike said.

amannion@tribune.com