The Surgery Ship
Documentary | 1 hour 18 minutes 13 seconds | 2014 | Guinea

SHOWTIME: 12:35PM(All times are subject to change)

Out on the ocean, a ship of doctors and nurses is traveling to the poorest of the poor living in West Africa. It carries life saving medical services for people who have none: children who suffer with terrible leg deformities, women outcast from their communities by birthing fistulas, vast tumors of all shapes and sizes which afflict the unlucky. With no medical help, sufferers must survive the best they can – unless the ship is in port. The ship docks in a different country every year and people come from all corners of the globe. It is the last hope for so many – and if they miss the boat, there is no other chance. On arrival, a flood of patients pours into the port, but in this medical lottery not everyone can win. For the lucky ones, doctors will carry out lifesaving operations on unbelievable cases. Many of these ills do not exist outside of West Africa and have never been seen before by these doctors.

Nonetheless, the volunteer medics must make on the spot life and death decisions. Some are too far-gone to treat, others not deemed severe enough – and the worst group are the patients in the middle, where the treatment may bring uncertain outcome, but no treatment means certain death. A confronting, complex journey for the volunteer doctors and nurses, it will be a case of life and death for many of the patients. By the end it is not just the patients who are transformed. The young nurses and doctors will be challenged to the limits of their training and abilities.

NERIDA is a young and idealistic yet inexperienced surgeon who will face a patient who cannot be fully cured. NEIL is mature doctor who has left his steady practise to go to one of the most out of control countries on earth. DAN will form an unexpectedly deep connection with a young child, whom he must leave at the end of the year in Guinea. Told through their eyes we follow the dramatic and confronting events as they unfold on the Surgery Ship.

Madeleine Hetherton

Madeleine Hetherton

Rebecca Barry
Madeleine Hetherton

Director: Madeleine Hetherton

Madeleine is an experienced director and producer working across a wide range of television documentary and top rating factual programs. Her long form documentary work includes directing the documentary series ‘Making Babies’ (SBS) reviewed as ‘fascinating and moving’ (The Age), ‘Beats Across Borders’ (ABC /Cirque du Soleil) and ‘Love In Our Own Time’. Her filmmaking has taken her around the world shooting in challenging locations including diamond diving in Africa, wildlife trafficking in Burma and the remote outback of Australia.

Her work has been nominated for a number of awards including ADG for Best Directing and by the Association of International Broadcasters for Best Contemporary Documentary.

She has extensive experience in television documentary and factual programs shooting and producing for major Australian production companies such as Endemol Southern Star, IMG Media, Freehand TV & Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder including producing and shooting on over 60 episodes of the top rating ‘Bondi Rescue’ (Ch10/Nat Geo) as well as popular series such as ‘The Nest’ (SBS), ‘Last Chance Surgery’ (Ch7/Discovery) ‘The Poker Star’ (Ch10) and most recently, the popular ‘Outback Truckies’ (Ch 7).

She recently completed producing and directing the feature documentary ‘The Surgery Ship’. The documentary follows stories aboard the worlds largest civilian hospital ship as it roams the coast of West Africa.

Director’s Statement

The Surgery Ship is a story about the incredible power of modern medicine and aid and at the same time, it’s limitations. We live in a time of intense debate about the provision of medical services. Who should provide them? How should we pay for medicine? Who is entitled to medical aid? The story of a ship that travels the seas offering free medical help puts these questions into a savage new context.

West Africa shows us what life really means without access to the modern medicine we can take for granted. It’s like stepping back in time to a world without modern surgery. Illnesses no longer seen in the developed West, flourish here and many will eventually kill.

This is a complex story about the difficulty of giving aid. Like the characters in the film, the ship presents as a powerful, well-equipped vessel with some of the world’s best surgeons and support medics. Yet there are brutal limits to what it can achieve. No matter how much it does, the line of patients at its door is unending. So this is also a story about the ongoing quest to give aid and the impossibility of a quick fix in Africa.

The Surgery Ship is also a story about the intense ethical dilemmas faced by individual medics as they decide who they will help and who they will turn away, knowing that there is no-where else for these people to go.

Despite these complicated issues, The Surgery Ship is also a story about the every day heroism of both Africans and the volunteers and the human drive to rise above circumstances, to survive, and give the best of ourselves – even when there seems no end in sight. At its heart, this is a positive film, in it we see people as active agents in the broader world arena – people who are seeking to make a difference. It is an outward looking story about how we can engage with the world.

“One… should be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why did I choose this story to tell?

In 2009 after a complicated pregnancy I gave birth to a very premature and sick baby. We were both lucky to survive. I recovered relatively quickly, but my son Zeke spent over a year in hospital struggling to breathe with lungs too small to support his body and badly damaged from both premature birth and the invasive measures taken to save his life. It was a long, dark journey punctuated by many terrifying admissions into intensive care where Zeke would barely hold onto his life, breath by breath. He was not expected to survive, yet somehow he did.

Over that time, we became very close to a number of doctors and nurses – one of them was a volunteer on the Africa Mercy hospital ship. My curiosity was awoken: What would life be like in a part of the world, which has almost no access to modern medicine? I had just come through an experience of intensive modern medicine and even with the most advanced of care, we had only just survived. What could it mean to live in a world where this was not available? Even in the very dark hours of intensive care, we did not fear that the medicine or care would suddenly stop or that advanced treatments were unavailable to my son. How would it be to live in a part of the world where doctors, drugs, expertise – even basic sanitation were simply a dream or images glimpsed on television, not a part of the reachable world?

I was particularly caught by the immensely difficult problem of choosing who would be helped and who would be turned away. The ship has extremely limited resources and part of it’s success is that it will only take patients whom they have a very good chance of curing. They can help people with benign tumours, obstetric issues, orthopaedic, burns complications, eyesight and dental needs. But this is only a fraction of the need in West Africa.