Making a Splash: Life will never be the same again for the Latham family after leaving Manchester for two years onboard a hospital ship transforming lives

The Latham family in front of a Mercy Ship

Making a Splash: Life will never be the same again for the Latham family after leaving Manchester for two years onboard a hospital ship transforming lives

Volunteering abroad for a couple of years is usually associated with single people. That step into the unknown might not be the obvious choice for a couple with three school aged children, but that’s exactly what one family from Manchester did last summer.

The Latham family were living in Sale, Manchester when a phone call in February 2023 transformed their lives.

Dad Simon Latham, a GP, mum Amélie, a PE teacher and French tutor, and their daughters Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10, headed off for a planned two-year commitment to volunteer onboard one of our hospital ships.

Amélie said:

“When we got the phone call, we were a bit stunned. We had applied two years ago for Mercy Ships because we knew we wanted to do something to help people access surgical care who couldn’t. But time moved on and we got settled where we were.

“Then they told us they had got a place for a ship doctor and a family cabin and it was ours if we wanted it.”

Winthin a month they were making plans to spend the next two years living and volunteering on a hospital ship bringing life-changing surgery and training to people in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We told the girls we had been offered a space and over February half term we looked at videos of Mercy Ships. I could not imagine how it would be.

“The education was a massive thing for me. All our friends and the network, all the girls had ever known was in Manchester and it felt like such a leap into the unknown.”

Simon headed off to the ship, which was in Senegal in April 2023, where he had the opportunity to make the decision about whether he felt the family should make the leap.

Amélie, who is originally from Brittany, France, waited tentatively to see what Simon’s reaction would be.

“Simon asked lots of questions. He met loads of people. When he came back it was yes. He got back at the end of April and by June 18th we left. It was a fast turnaround. Saying goodbye to everyone, vaccinations, packing for two years, finishing all our sports clubs and the girls’ schools.

“Packing for two years for a family of five is not easy but it was liberating! By the time we got on the flight to leave on 18th June, we were exhausted.”

The Lathams are now living on our latest ship, the Global Mercy, docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone where they have been since August 2023.

Their family cabin is a far cry from their semi-detached house in Manchester, but they have made it homely with many items from their Sale home.

Simon is currently working as the ships’ doctor – like an onboard GP. Instead of the numerous patients he treated in Manchester with the Trafford Local Care Organisation back at home he now cares for all the crew from more than 50 nations. He is also involved in caring for the patients from Sierra Leone who have spent years seeking surgery for life-limiting and major conditions.

Although getting a GP appointment in the UK can seem like a challenge – the Sierra Leonean patients onboard face a much tougher experience to get medical aid.

As well as run of the mill illnesses he dealt with at home, he now also keeps a look out for tropical diseases too which he admits makes his day job exciting. He also gets to see miraculous transformations he has not experienced before. 

Simon said:

“I get to see the impact here in a way I have never seen. What we can do and the change we can make – it’s transformational.”

He recalled:

“I cried the other day on a ward round and I don’t cry a lot! There was this lady who had come in for surgery on a massive tumour – one that she had lived for a long time that disfigured her face and made her life so difficult. Her bandages were coming off and everyone was saying ‘wow’ and she just politely gave a smile at people’s reaction. 

“But then someone passed her a mirror and her face, which had been quite sullen – just completely lit up! It was just absolutely wonderful to see what it meant to her. It is life changing to see these things.”

Amélie is the ship’s PE teacher, it is not just Simon who gets to experience the life-changing work firsthand.

Amélie helps with patients in the LCU (Low Care Unit after surgery. The girls also spend time in the LCU, sometimes as part of their school day and grasp the urgent need as well as work experience opportunities to help patients. The family visit patients before and after surgery in the HOPE (Hospital Out Patient Extension centre).

Simon said:

I cannot see myself going back to the normal job. There is too much that needs to be done in this context to feel like I could go back. The need is greater and with such short resources. The glimpses you get into people’s lives you can see how amazing they are. I could not just go back and close my eyes and say that there is none of this going in places where there is little access to healthcare.”

The impact of what they have experienced in Freetown, including the living conditions of some, means things can never be the same again. 

Amélie added:

“All three of the girls now want to do a job where they can help others and give something back. They can’t see it any other way after the experiences they are having and seeing the incredible need. It has been life-changing for all of us.”

Simon said:

“The things we have seen means things can’t go back to the way it was for any of us – we cannot close our eyes and ears to how some people have to live. It has changed us all. We were all very comfortable at home.

“Life will never be the same again for any of us – and that’s a good thing.”

Could you volunteer on our hospital ships? Find your place on board.