By Trang Do

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A Philadelphia-based oral surgeon is transforming faces and lives, even in her spare time. For the past six years, Dr. Joli Chou, MD, DMD of Jefferson University Hospital has donated two weeks a year to Mercy Ships. She works alongside other medical professionals to provide much-needed healthcare to underserved communities in Africa.

“Everybody that serves, goes there on a voluntary basis, you actually pay your way to go there to help the people,” she said.

Dr. Chou’s most recent trip in February took her 6,000 miles away to the Africa Mercy, a medical ship currently docked off the coast of Cameroon.

It was her sixth volunteer trip with Mercy Ships, a commitment that has brought her expertise to five African countries.

“I realized how much help they were providing for people who cannot afford care,” she said. “So I just keep on going back.”

The surgeries she’s performing, such cleft lip and cleft palate repairs, are simple here in the United States and are often done very early in life before they develop into serious problems. But in places where access to advanced medical is extremely limited, these surgeries are life-changing. Many patients are able to smile for the first time in years.

“There’s a lot of benign tumors that go unchecked because the people there cannot afford care, so instead of say, a quarter-sized tumor, in the jaw, in the upper or lower jaw, often the patients that we encounter there are melon-sized, watermelon-sized,” Dr. Chou said.

The Africa Mercy is stationed in one country for ten months. It takes some 450 people to operate the ship at any given time.

It’s essentially a floating hospital, providing medical care, surgeries and training completely free of charge, but people with all kinds of skill sets are needed to keep it going.

“It is really a community on its own, it’s a little town, you can be a cashier, because there’s a little shop on the ship. There’s a bank, so they need an accountant,” Dr. Chou said. “Anybody who has any type of skills that they can offer, they are always looking for crews.”

Mercy Ships is currently building a second medical ship, so they’ll need plenty of volunteers to staff it. To find out more, visit their website.

Dr. Chou has already scheduled her next Mercy Ships trip. She’ll be headed to Guinea in January.

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