Therapist serving in Africa watches ‘miracles happen every day’

Elisabeth Mordecai, an occupational therapist with a specialty in hands, treats a burn victim aboard a hospital ship in Africa.

Elisabeth Mordecai, an occupational therapist with a specialty in hands, treats a burn victim aboard a hospital ship in Africa.

NEW HAVEN — An occupational therapist with a specialty in hands is serving aboard a hospital ship in Africa helping children who have suffered burns to get their lives back.

Elisabeth Mordecai, who lives in New Haven and grew up in Bethany, has since February been volunteering aboard the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship, currently docked in Cameroon.

“It’s like watching miracles happen every day,” she said, in an interview from the ship. “It’s emotional for sure.”

This is Mordecai’s second sixth-month stint with Mercy Ships. There are many types of care going on aboard the eight-deck ship with 450 crew members and medical and rehabilitative personnel from over 40 countries.

Her work has been concentrated on therapy for children who have suffered burns — often years before — and who finally got surgery on the ship — the treatment delayed because of poverty.

She said there are many burns in children in the region because of open-flame cooking. Some have had brushes with the fire, some put their hands in boiling water and some even fall into it. Lack of immediate treatment such as people would experience in this country has led to deformity and lack of ability to use hand, arms, legs, she said. In some cases, burned areas fused with other areas of the body because the tendency when one gets burned is to hold that part close to the body, she said.

“It’s hard not to come back,” said Mordecai, who also did a six-month stint in 2016. “It’s part of my heart now.”

She said many of the injuries, once treated, offer hope for independence — restoring the ability of kids to do basic things such as bathe, dress, squeeze a tube of toothpaste and even work in the future. There is also a psychological benefit, as many may be pointed at or made fun of because of their appearance, she said.

“The before and after is pretty dramatic,” she said.

Mordecai cited as an example a recent 9-year-old patient who, when she was at 1, reached into a pot of boiling water and had burns to her wrist that caused her elbow to be stuck at a 90-degree angle, her arm to be stuck to her side and her wrist pulled back. The little girl couldn’t straighten her elbow.

Following surgery Mordecai worked with her six days a week in therapy. It was painful, but every time Mordecai stopped because of that, the little girl would say, “Encore,” because she so wanted to get better.

The girl, proud of her accomplishments, loved to tell people, “I did my exercises and I didn’t cry.”

The little girl finished a changed person — and Mordecai said no one is happier for the healing than parents, who truly understand what recovery will mean over the child’s lifetime.

Mordecai, 33, who will return in July, normally works at Hand Therapy Associates in the Bridgeport office and said they have been “incredibly accommodating,” — holding her job open while she serves. She doesn’t get paid in her absence and said she’s lucky to be able to serve.

Mordecai predicts she will be returning to the far away field sometime in the future.

“I think once you come here and get a taste of it, it’s hard not to come back,” she said.

To view a 3-min overview of Mercy Ships visit: