I sold my Sale home and took my family to work on a hospital ship in Africa - our lives will never be the same

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

A British GP sold his Manchester home and moved his entire family to live on a hospital ship - 4,000 miles away in Sierra Leone.

GP Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, wanted to help those less fortunate and applied to work on a hospital ship. Years passed and they forgot about it, until a phone call came asking them to move onto the ship with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10.

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Within two months the family, from Sale, had packed up their lives and put their four-bed house on the market. They would be living in a cabin, volunteering on charity hospital ship Global Mercy, bringing life-changing surgery and training to people in sub-Saharan Africa, where access to healthcare is severely limited.

Simon works on board as a GP, and Amélie as a PE teacher, while their daughters attend the on-board school. The family have now been docked on the coast of Freetown, Sierra Leone, for nine months - and say it's been life-changing for them all.

Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10. Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10.
Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10. | Mercy Ships / SWNS

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 family-of-five got the phone call inviting them to join the ship in February 2023 - leaving them stunned. But they were keen to do something to help people access surgical care who couldn’t.

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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. He returned and decided it was the right move - and by June they were packed up and on their way to their new life.

Amélie said: "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 June 18th, we were exhausted.”

They moved into a family cabin on board Global Mercy, run by the medical charity Mercy Ships, which has performed more than 117,000 life-changing or life-saving surgeries for people in struggling nations. Nine out of 10 people living in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to safe, affordable surgical care when they need it, according to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery.

Now, instead of the numerous patients Simon treated in Manchester with the Trafford Local Care Organisation, 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. As well as run of the mill illnesses he dealt with at home, he now also keeps a look out for tropical diseases, and other unusual conditions, too which he admits makes his day job "exciting".

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Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10. Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10.
Simon Latham, 39, and his wife Amélie, 43, with their three daughters - Zara, 14, Héloïse, 12, and Sophie, 10. | Mercy Ships / SWNS

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. 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.”

It is not just Simon who gets to experience the life-changing work first-hand. Amélie helps with patients in the Low Care Unit (LCU) after surgery - and Zara has also worked there for work experience. Sophie, who was due to go into year six in Manchester, is in grade five in the school’s onboard fully accredited academy just one deck above their bedrooms. Zara had been set for year 10 and Héloïse set for year eight in the UK, are now grade nine and grade seven onboard.

With now just a handful of classmates, the girls are learning new languages to communicate with newfound international friends, whose parents are also volunteering. Their new life has had such a profound impact on the whole family, and it has even inspired the three daughters' future careers.

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Amélie said: “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 added: "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.”

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