In the year 2000, South African TERTIUS VENTER gave up a life of comfort and a successful career as a plastic surgeon to operate for free on the world’s poor. More than 17 years later, he is still doing so. What made this husband and father choose the road less travelled? He tells SHIRLEY FAIRALL
WARNING: this article contains graphic visuals
Plastic and reconstructive surgeon Tertius Venter gave up a comfortable life to serve the world’s poor | Photo © Mercy Ships
‘MY LIFE WAS PERFECT. I had a wonderful wife and two children, a successful medical practice, I was living a great life in East London [South Africa] doing work I loved, and we wanted for nothing. I remember feeling very privileged, never quite believing all these blessings could be just for me.
In 2000, a huge ship called the Anastasis appeared in the harbour. This was a Mercy Ship, specifically set up to serve the two-thirds of the world’s population who have no access to safe and affordable surgery. Gary Parker, one of the long-term surgeons on the ship gave a talk that I attended, and I just knew I had to serve on it. I signed up to work in Gambia for 10 days. Like everyone else on the ship I was a volunteer, responsible for getting myself to the ship, paying for my keep while aboard, and giving my time and skills for free.
In those first 10 days in Gambia, I encountered a level of utter poverty I’d never seen before. I didn’t realise that people could have such great needs. Many patients have massive tumours which take as much as 12 hours of surgery to remove. These come from lack of surgical care: if someone in the West has an unusual growth, their doctor removes it before it has a chance to grow, usually under local anaesthetic. In the poorest nations where people have no medical access, that growth will become a monstrous disfigurement over many years. Others patients were badly burnt as toddlers and their skin has fused, preventing use of a limb. The surgery we perform is life-changing.
Without access to safe, affordable medical care, a small lump that could be removed under local anaesthetic will grow into a massive disfiguring tumour such as this one which Tertius removed that extended all the way down Minette’s back | Photo © Mercy Ships
One evening I was sitting alone on deck and it occurred to me that the only difference between me and the people the ship was helping was where we were born. I was just the same as them.
At that moment, I felt very aware of the presence of God, and felt him showing me that he’d given me my blessings to share with other people. I’d heard others talking about encounters with God but had never understood what this meant, and how intimate an experience of Him could be. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I have lived in close communion with Him ever since.
When I returned home from Gambia, I found my material possessions had lost their value to me. I realised I was feeling called to serve others full-time. This was really difficult for my wife Trudi as she hadn’t experienced what I had, and suddenly I wanted to give up everything for it!
I’m in awe of my wife
Over a period of six years, I slowly withdrew from private practice. For Trudi, a teacher who’s also involved with a social upliftment programme on local wine farms, the first five years were really hard. I was constantly away and she was left to take care of our son and daughter, who were in high school. But I believe God touched her heart too and I’m so grateful for her support. I’m in awe of her, not least because of the way she brought up our children, both of whom are now happily married.
The Africa Mercy and her volunteer staff, all of whom pay to work aboard her serving the poor | Photo © Mercy Ships
In 2007, the Anastasis was replaced by the Africa Mercy, a state-of-the-art hospital ship. It has five operating theatres, 80 beds, an ICU, high care unit and all the facilities you get in a hospital from CT scans to X-rays. It’s staffed entirely by about 450 volunteers from cooks to cleaners, nurses to doctors from more than 40 different nations.
The ship stays in port for a year. I spend two eight-week periods early in the year on it, going back later for two more months to follow up on patients and perform second surgeries where necessary.
The surgery Tertius performs changes lives | Photo © Mercy Ships
I’m the only plastic surgeon serving long-term on board and I’m bound to the ship when I’m on it: I can have 30 to 40 patients on the ward at once and need to be there for them 24/7. It can be difficult living in a small community in a relatively controlled environment. The hardest thing is missing my family. Workwise, the greatest challenges come from the extreme surgical conditions we see which aren’t described in standard surgical textbooks. But I’ve never wanted to give up because I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do.
Two to three times a year, I volunteer further afield in places like the Philippines and Mexico with Operation Smile, repairing cleft lips and palates. I also spend two months a year in various African countries training surgeons on a programme run by the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons.
This work has left me without an income, but I believe God clearly told me He’d provide, and has done just that through donations and fundraising. I’ve personally completed six cycle tours to raise funds and awareness of the desperate need for surgery amongst the poor. The longest was in 2015, when I cycled 6500 km from New York to San Francisco: not in a straight line but in the shape of two smiles. We called the campaign cyclemilesforsmiles. I enjoy the cycling tremendously.
In 2015 Tertius cycled 6500 km from New York to San Francisco, the longest of six cycle tours he’s undertaken to raise funds and awareness of the enormous need for surgery amongst the poor
As you can imagine, having their faces and limbs restored is a lot for patients to deal with. We all have a certain image of ourselves, and when we suddenly become a different person there’s an adjustment process to go through. Patients often feel shocked. Most surgical patients stay on the ship for weeks as they’re healing. We have a strong and loving chaplaincy team on board which helps them overcome their shock and treats them with a level of dignity that changes their lives.
I had a 21-year-old with a tumour that grew from the back of her head all the way to her hips. When someone asked her what she was most grateful for, her answer was the love and care she received aboard ship. To her that was almost more important than having the tumour removed. This fills all of our hearts with joy.
This work is my own joy, a call. I’m driven to do it by my love for God. His presence in my life strengthens and motivates me daily. I want to keep doing this as long as I can.’
The woman behind the man: Tertius’ wife Trudi, who sees her husband for a total of two months per year. ‘It’s been a rough ride for 17 years, but what I have to sacrifice is nothing compared to what Tertius’ patients have to go through. Sometimes I’m lonely and struggle, but when I see the before-and-after pictures, I know Tertius has to use the incredible talent God’s given him. You either sink or swim, so I learnt to live day by day. I also started up a minstry to 132 local wine-farm workers, and teach Afrikaans to high school pupils in the afternoons. We support each other and speak on the phone every night that the internet allows and I am fulfilled: it’s a dual calling.’
Dr Tertius Venter’s work with the world’s poor is entirely dependent on donations. Should you care to offer financial support to enable him to continue operating for free on the world’s poor, please click here to visit his website
TAKE A QUICK LOOK AT SOME OF THE WORK DONE BY THE MERCY SHIPS AND A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH DR GARY PARKER, THE SURGEON WHOSE TALK 17 YEARS AGO INSPIRED TERTIUS TO WORK TO SERVE THE POOR