A life well-lived: the legacy of Dr Keith Thomson

Dr Keith Thomson(Photo: Mercy Ships)

British anaesthetist Keith Thomson who dedicated himself to improving medical and surgical care in West Africa for more than 30 years through charity Mercy Ships, has passed away, aged 75.

A man of great generosity of spirit, Dr Keith's colleagues and friends could testify that his "infectious passion for helping others knew no bounds."

His journey with international Christian charity Mercy Ships started in 1990 when, as a newly appointed consultant anaesthetist, he read an article in the Daily Telegraph about the charity's first hospital ship – the Anastasis. Within three days he went to see the ship for himself while it was moored at London Docklands.

During his tour, he was so moved by the charity's determination to bring hope and healing to the world's poorest countries through free surgeries and training that he decided he would volunteer for three weeks the following year when the ship was based in Tema, Ghana.

But what was initially a short volunteering trip during annual leave from his NHS work at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, quickly grew into a consuming passion.

He said: "Mercy Ships has been in my blood since the first time I volunteered for one of their ships in 1991 and I honestly believe it's the best medical charity anyone could support."

Dr Keith who lived in Ascot, went on to volunteer as an anaesthetist 24 times from 1991 to 2007 in more than 10 African nations. Mercy Ships, its patients and in-country professionals, benefited from his selfless determination to make a difference for the rest of his life.

A patient whose life he saved through his kindness, was Catherine Conteh from Sierra Leone.

Now a successful health practitioner herself, Catherine previously reflected: "The idea that someone would come and help you without knowing you, someone who did not come from our background and who is totally different but is willing to give you the gift of life is incredible."

When 'Dr Keith', as he was affectionately known by the organisation, was awarded top honour of the Pask Certificate in 2009 by The Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain & Ireland, in recognition of his volunteer work with the Mercy Ships, he explained his motivation:

"Working onboard as part of an international team of volunteer medics is hugely exciting but the most rewarding aspect is seeing the patients after surgery and realising that their lives have literally changed overnight.

Dr Keith Thomson with one of the many people he treated over the years.(Photo: Mercy Ships)

"Their surgeries aren't just operations – they give them back hope and a chance to lead a normal life. Often our patients are outcasts in their communities because of their physical deformities but after surgery they are once again accepted into their families.

"My experiences with Mercy Ships have been the most rewarding of my life and I would encourage everyone who is considering volunteering to look at Mercy Ships."

Scottish-born Dr Keith trained at the Royal Free St Bartholomew's and University College Hospitals, and was committed to improving healthcare in Africa. His infectious enthusiasm saw him encourage a stream of anaesthetists and operating department practitioners from all over the world, eager to do their three weeks for Mercy Ships and recruited by his wit and enthusiasm.

But his support went further still through his fundraising and, with his late mother, enabling the purchase of around 30 Land Rovers for the ships' volunteers and day crew to be able to reach patients and clinics on land in remote areas. He also oversaw the donation of seven anaesthesia machines onboard the Global Mercy.

Since 2007, Dr Keith has been involved in medical training with Mercy Ships to strengthen African health systems. He organised the delivery of the SAFE (Safer Anaesthesia from Education) course in 15 African nations, along with other UK anaesthetists, to ensure the transfer of skills and improved care for generations to come.

Even after he retired in 2014 from Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospitals Foundation, Dr Keith continued to play a vital role in Mercy Ships service as an International and UK Board member. He still regularly travelled to Africa to facilitate training conferences and other development projects.

Dr Leo Cheng, a fellow Mercy Ships UK board member and Consultant in Oral, Maxillofacial and Head & Neck Surgery at St Bartholomew's, The Royal London and Homerton University Hospitals, has volunteered for Mercy Ships during his annual leave for the past 20 years, many of those times alongside Dr Keith.

He paid tribute saying: "Keith's energy and fresh ideas in helping others with his medical and anaesthetic insight was second to none. I benefitted from his extraordinary sense of mission and 'can do' spirit when he encountered barriers.

"With his generosity, connections and singlemindedness, I had the privilege of helping Keith to buy surgical equipment for Mercy Ships and other African hospitals. It was such a joy and pleasure to be part of Keith's team to source updated surgical equipment badly needed by surgeons in Africa."

His fellow Mercy Ships International board member Lois Boyle said: "Keith was truly one-of-a-kind. His contribution to Mercy Ships was incalculable but his commitment to the people of Africa went well beyond Mercy Ships. Whether he was sponsoring someone to pursue their dreams to work in healthcare or supporting a former patient to find a job, his infectious passion for helping others knew no bounds."

Mercy Ships UK Chief Executive Officer Joanne Balaam said: "It is hard not to be inspired by Dr Keith's insatiable desire to help people. For decades, he was an ardent supporter and advocate for Mercy Ships. Not only that, over the years he has faithfully mentored the next generation of surgical and medical professionals. He will be sorely missed but the impact he has left will continue to be his legacy."

His passion for Mercy Ships also inspired him creatively as he penned songs, including "Echo of Mercy" which celebrates the charity's newest hospital ship, the Global Mercy – a project he supported since its inception.

In March 2022, Dr Keith took joy in being introduced to HRH Princess Anne on board the Global Mercy in Rotterdam, as the brand-new hospital ship was being launched. It was her first engagement as patron of Mercy Ships International.

Dr Keith said in an interview shortly before he passed away: "I feel I have managed to contribute quite a lot in my life... I think I've had a life well lived. I'm not disappointed in my life at all, and the people I've been able to help."

Dr Keith passed away peacefully on the morning of 19 April at the age of 75, listening to the Soweto Gospel Choir's recording of 'Amazing Grace'. He is survived by his wife, Fiona, his two children and their families.