All cisterns go: How plumbers are just as in demand as doctors with Mercy Ships

Chris Milward - Plumber on the Africa Mercy

All cisterns go: How plumbers are just as in demand as doctors with Mercy Ships

When plumber Chris Milward volunteered onboard the hospital ship Africa Mercy he called himself a brain surgeon – and it’s nearer to the truth than you might think.

Chris from Loughborough said:

“Inside all of the toilets, like in an aeroplane, there’s a vacuum flush and people call it a ‘brain’. I told people, ‘I’m a brain surgeon onboard’ because I spent so much time fixing these ‘brains’. They then used to look at my [maintenance] clothes and realise I was joking!

“There were 192 toilets and over 200 showers on board with these ‘brains’ and about 50 broken ones that I would strip down and use them to keep all the toilets and showers working on the ship.”


The toilet 'brain' onboard the ship

The toilet ‘brain’ onboard the ship

The fact is, Chris’s ‘surgery’ is every bit as vital as the surgeons onboard as they could not operate without plumbers like him. Just as Mercy Ships hospital ships cannot not function without cooks, cleaners, electricians, teachers, finance staff, receptionists, and a host of other roles.

Since 1978, Mercy Ships has performed more than 108,000 life-changing or life-saving surgical procedures from cleft-lip lip and palate repair to facial reconstruction, burn contracture release. But it takes a village of volunteers to help bring life-changing surgery to the world’s poorest nations.

Reliable hot and cold-water supplies, drainage and of course toilet facilities are some of the very core necessities.


Chris said: “It felt like such a vital role on the ship – I was very much in demand. I felt so useful and knew I was using my talents for such a good purpose. It felt very fulfilling.”

He served as a plumber in Benin, West Africa, for three months 2016-17. His wife, Dawn, also came with him and served as a receptionist before moving to hospital administration. Then he came back as a plumber again in Senegal in 2020.

He said: “I loved it. I think what makes it unique is I was working alongside 450 people with exactly the same heart. They are people, whether Christian or not, who want to help out and have the same mindset to give back and bring hope and healing.”

Chris has served a total of five times for Mercy Ships since 1990, with the different roles reflecting his changing life as he has had varying jobs during his life. From vehicle maintenance to sound engineer for onboard music band to renovating cabins, his jobs have been rich and varied. He even got the chance to travel around much of Europe onboard a previous hospital ship, the Anastasis, as it gained publicity for its work.

But it was a qualified plumber, after spending years renovating houses, he really felt he was in his element.


Chris Milward on the Africa Mercy



He said:

“As a plumber you have to improvise quite a bit on the ship – I enjoyed that. On the Africa Mercy, it’s an older ship and you have to come up with ideas to fix things sometimes. It’s an amazing sense of achievement putting your knowledge to use and gaining and sharing your experience with day crew.”

While in Senegal, he helped train a number of day crew, including a man from Benin who still works on the ship today.

“It meant that they could carry on doing what I did after I had left. It was great to pass my knowledge on and I hear he still works onboard today.”

His daily job included everything from changing the multiple water filters on the ship to ensure everyone had drinking water to carrying a pager so he was on hand to deal with any emergency from floods to broken toilets.

“Whether you’re a plumber or another profession, I really believe everyone should volunteer onboard as it’s an experience of a lifetime – it needs to be on everyone’s bucket list. It will change their life and they definitely won’t regret it.”

Chris Milward reaching up to touch the ship's propeller while in dry dock


Over the years, Chris has given many talks, from youth groups to Christian festivals, inspiring others to volunteer. His passion for Mercy Ships inspired his own sister to volunteer.

For Chris, five times volunteering isn’t enough.

“I would like to get more skills under my belt and go back with more. I really know they need HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technicians so I would like train in that and go back again to help again. I can’t wait to go back.”

Are you an engineer, technician or plumber? Mercy Ships needs you to transform lives like Chris.

Register to volunteer for Mercy Ships