February 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Archive

Leo Cheng, Histon resident and surgeon, recently returned from Benin on board the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship – the Africa Mercy. There he performed life-saving operations to some of the poorest people of Africa.  He will be speaking at the Histon Methodist Church ‘Big Issues’ series of meetings on 25 February at 7:30 PM at the church hall.

Leo Cheng, a Consultant Oral and Facial Reconstructive Surgeon in Cambridge and London spent two weeks in Benin, West Africa and has previously volunteered with the international charity Mercy Ships which has operated hospital ships since 1978. Last year, he also went with his daughter, Kat who volunteered as an eye clinic assistant in war-torn Liberia. Two years ago, his wife, Hilary, a Methodist Minister in Histon also volunteered as a chaplain for patients and carers both on board the Africa Mercy and on land-based community projects and clinics.

Leo said: “Publicity in the UK often focuses on a few desperate patients being flown into UK for reconstructive facial surgery but with Mercy Ships, we provide western quality treatment for patients in the poorest countries of the world, on their door step. We know that 90 of the world’s biggest cities are port cities, offering easy access to the ship for people without health care.”

His five previous trips were in Benin, Liberia (3 trips) and Ghana where he offered his skills and time, along with other surgeons and nurses, to provide corrective and reconstructive surgery to people suffering from large tumours, cleft lips and war wounds.
In many parts of Africa, people who suffer from deforming diseases are shunned because it is believed they are possessed of evil spirits.  So not only do they suffer physically, they also suffer tremendous emotional pain as close family and friends desert them. 
The woman in the photograph with the enormous benign tumor in her neck is a perfect example. Leo told the HI Courier: “This woman was around 45 years who came to the Africa Mercy reluctantly because she thought that her growing neck lump was going to stay with her for life.
“She had a large thyroid or goitre which had been growing for 6-7 years. She tried to ignore it until her children asked her grandchildren not to come near her. It was because her children, other members of her family and friends all thought that she possessed evil spirit in her neck. She was isolated and not allowed to join various social events in her own village. She also started to developing choking sensation and difficulty in swallowing.

“During surgery, my team and I removed a 3 part goitre – one was obvious under her neck skin, one pushed below her collar bone towards her heart, and another one pushed towards her windpipe (trachea) and food passage (oesophagus). It weighted approx 1kg. (Normal human thyroid gland weights around 40-60g)

“After her operation, she was looking forward to hold her grandchildren and sit them on her knees, and socialise with her families and friends.”

Another of Leo’s patients was a 41 year old man with a benign tumour growing from his parotid gland for more than 8-9 years. The ‘paratoid’ is largest pair of salivary glands and lies just behind the angle of the jaw, below and in front of the ears. Leo said: “It had grown so large that skin over the tip of the mass broke down and it started to bleed. He was isolated by his friends and families and he lived in a back room. When he came to the Africa Mercy, he was anaemic due to slow dripping of blood from his tumour. The mass also pressed on his facial nerve making his facial muscles weak (like a stroke patient without the function of facial expression). His families stuck dressings on the tip of his parotid mass to reduce bleeding. When he came to the ward, he had a dark shirt covering his head and face. I thought he was a woman when I first saw him!”
“His operation took me and another surgeon and our teams 9 hours to remove the tumour without disturbing the facial nerve. His extensive facial and neck defect after removal of this ruby-sized mass was repaired with various skin flaps from neck and scalp. Hence he was bandaged after the operation.

“He could not believe that the tumour had gone after surgery as he looked at the mirror because the tumour had been with him for so long. It is very sad to me to see such an extensive tumour in desperate patients like him. What he needed was basic surgery from specialist Maxillofacial Surgeon to remove the tumour when it was small but such basic surgical procedure does not exist in the developing world like those countries in West Africa. Here in UK, small tumours of the parotid gland are removed by Maxillofacial Surgeons with a few hours with good preservation of facial function.”

The impact on the lives of his patients can not be over emphasised.  To them, Leo is a true miracle worker and friend for life.  You can see why Leo and his family go back again and again.
Every crew member of the Africa Mercy, including the captain, surgeons, nurses, dentists, hygienists, chef, engineers, electricians and cleaning staff are volunteers who pay for their own accommodation on board and transport to the ship. In addition to the dramatic transforming surgery on board the Mercy ship, medical and dental teams establish land-based field clinics carrying out free vaccination programmes, dental care, minor operations and medical screening, as well as supporting the training of local doctors and nurses. They also run education programmes in hygiene, nutrition, basic health care (including AIDS prevention) and micro-enterprises to generate income for the poor.
To meet Leo Cheng and hear more about the work of the Africa Mercy, come to the Histon Methodist ‘Big Issues’ meeting on 25th February at 7:30 PM in the church hall on High Street.
A big 'thank you' goes to Hollyoak Veterinary Surgery in Impington for their financial and technical support. Without it this website would not be possible.


  1. Leo Cheng says:

    Thank you Ken for putting the article and images so attractive and well. This gives me an opportunity to show it to my friends and professional colleagues about the presentation.

    My grateful thanks to all in Histon and Impington Courier for raising the awareness of this miraculous and God-sent charity to bring hope and healing to those desperate patients.

    God bless

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