Guest post by Kerry Warner RN: My name is Kerry Warner and I’m an operating theatre RN working at Gosford Hospital. The NSW Nurses Association very kindly provided me with some financial support to serve in a voluntary basis on board the hospital ship Africa Mercy earlier this year. I wanted to share my experience with other nurses and encourage them to similarly volunteer.
I heard about the Mercy Ships organisation when my husband and I attended a Christian missions expo in Newcastle. Mercy Ships has a very good website where we gathered more info about the work they do. Two doctors from Gosford Hospital had also served on the Africa Mercy and so we learnt more from them.
Kerry and Andy Warner with the Africa Mercy.
My husband and I served on the Mercy for a total of eight weeks, from April till June this year. The ship was in Togo during this time, having arrived at the beginning of January and leaving mid-June. The next place of service for the ship will be Guinea, from August 2012 for approximately 10 months.
All crew on board the Mercy are volunteers who pay their own monthly fees for lodging and food, plus all transport costs to and from the ship and their home country. In this way Mercy ships are able to offer free surgery to the people of West Africa.
There are not just hospital positions available on board. The ship requires kitchen and dining room staff, cleaners (possibly the most important job on board to prevent infection and disease amongst crew and patients), management and admin staff, school teachers (there is a school), librarian, IT staff, engineers, marine crew, security staff, stores staff, plumbers, chaplains, etc.
The hospital has all the usual staff, including doctors, nurses, pathology, X-ray, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, counsellors, sterilising and laundry staff. Locals are employed as translators and in other positions on board.
Over 400 crew are housed onboard. While we were there, the crew came from approximately 32 different countries. The accommodation caters for singles, couples and families. We lived in a couples cabin, which was very comfortable with its own ensuite, much like a motel room.
Kerry on right scrubbed for a thyroidectomy on board the ship.
A typical day starts with breakfast in the dining room from 6.30-7.30am. The workday usually starts at 8am for non-hospital workers. Working in the operating theatre (they use the American term, OR), I would generally start work about 7.45am. Normal hospital shifts operate for ward nurses. In the OR there generally wasn’t morning and afternoon staff. Nursing staff were assigned to a particular OR for the duration of the day.
Prior to commencing work each day there would be a time of prayer. Work finished at varying times depending on the number of patients. If a list ran later than say 5.30ish, the on-call staff would complete the list. The days could be very long, but the work was so rewarding and everyone pitched in and helped wherever and whenever they could. There was very good morale on board.
Of an evening and weekend, crew were free to relax on board or go on shore as desired. Security was taken very seriously and so each time crew left the ship they would have to record where they were going. There was a night curfew.
On board there are lounge areas, a cafe, shop, computer lounge, library, pool, weights room, etc. For families with children there is an internationally accredited school for years K-12. Throughout the week there are activities and meetings, from church services to exercise classes, language classes, Togolese culture classes, Bible study groups, computer classes and movie nights, to name just a few.
Types of surgeries performed on board include eye surgery (cataracts, both adults and children, strabismus repairs, pterygium excisions) and maxillofacial surgery for various kinds of tumors and deformities, mostly those that we don’t see to anywhere near the same extent in the West. The lack of medical services and inability of people to afford medical care results in tumors that grow to very large sizes and require major surgery. There are cleft lip and palate repairs, plastic reconstructive surgery for such things as burns contracture releases, vesico-vaginal fistula surgery (VVF), orthopaedic surgery and general surgery (mostly thyroidectomies and hernia repairs).
Mentoring and training of African health workers, including surgeons and nurses, also takes place.
I mostly worked in the eye OR. Most of our surgeries were adult cataracts. The criteria for surgery was that the patient was blind in both eyes. We would operate on one.
To be blind in West Africa creates enormous pressure on families who need to work to provide for themselves and communities who need to provide care for the blind. To restore the sight of these patients is life changing. Immediately after their surgeries, the patients would so humbly thank us for restoring their eyesight. Many would offer up thanks to God. Their humility and thankfulness was very humbling for me too. In Australia we often complain about our healthcare, but compared to what is available for the people of West Africa, we are so very privileged. We won’t suffer a benign tumour that grows for so long due to lack of medical services that it eventually asphyxiates us – or worse still, watch our child suffer this. We don’t have to wait until we are blind before we have cataract surgery. And we don’t have to suffer from urinary and/or faecal incontinence from a fistula due to traumatic childbirth and be completely rejected and shunned by our family and community.
Each Friday a ‘celebration of sight’ was held where there was much music, dancing and singing in thanks to God for restoring their eyesight. This was amazing to watch, the patients were so very thankful for their surgery. It was humbling for us crew to be a part of this as well. Just prior to discharge the VVF ladies were all given new clothes and makeup and a wonderful celebration was held.
We also operated on children with bilateral cataracts, mostly from birth. This was very special surgery to be part of.
One morning will be forever etched in my memory. We were removing the bandages from the eyes of a four year old girl who we’d performed bilateral cataract surgery on the previous day. This little girl had been blind from birth and had never seen her mother’s face. When the bandages were removed she stared at her mother and then slowly at first and very gently reached out and touched the face of her mother who she was seeing for the first time. This was a very special moment and it was a great privilege to witness it.
What is also amazing is that four out of her five siblings were also born with congenital cataracts and we were able to operate on them all.
The slogan of Mercy Ships is ‘transforming lives through hope and healing’ and this family was certainly transformed.
Andy and Kerry with Mawuto, the child they sponsor through Compassion.
We enjoyed going on shore when we could, mostly at weekends. We would visit the markets in Lome (capital of Togo), visited a number of the local churches, visited the homes of some Togolese who worked on board and enjoyed a meal with their families, stayed overnight in the mountain area about two to three hours out of Lome. We also had the privilege of being involved in the handing out of the Samaritian’s Purse Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes through one of our Togolese friends and also visiting our sponsored child through Compassion. Both of these were truly amazing experiences, though not connected with the work of Mercy Ships.
Serving on the Africa Mercy is a life changing experience. We witnessed people who had suffered for a long time due to lack of adequate and affordable medical care, medical care that we take for granted and assume is our right to receive. Yet the people are not bitter or angry, just so very humble and thankful for the care sent their way through Mercy Ships. Kerry Warner
Media Stockade are looking for health volunteers to take part in a documentary about the Africa Mercy for SBS-TV later this year.
Image credits: Courtesy of Kerry Warner