Thursday, August 9, 2018

What Happens on a Hospital Ship when the Hospital is Closed?

This picture was taken last year during ship yard. The Ship was taken out of the water to clean and repair the underside. This is the after photo when the Africa Mercy was looking its best. Photo Credit: Katie Callow

Hospital ward clean and secured for sail.
Roughly 2 months ago the last Cameroonian patients were discharged from the Africa Mercy and the deep clean and securement of the hospital began. After a beautiful sail to the Canary Islands, Spain the ship entered into a period of ship yard.  While no one on board would complain about the location for our ship yard (Las Palmas is beautiful) the Africa Mercy’s time here is not to give the crew a vacation. Ship yard is a very important time for renovations and updates that are vital to the efficient running of a ship/hospital, renovations that cannot be done docked in Africa and loaded down with patients. During ship yard the faces change as specialist workers and contractors file through, using their talents and skills to transform patients’ lives hundreds of miles away. These workers may never see the lives that they have changed, but without their service the ship wouldn’t be able to sail to the countries we serve.

Refinishing of the staircase during ship yard period. 
Ship Yard for me has been a bitter sweet time. For most of the last two months the ship has been without air-conditioning, and random power or water outages mean that we might go 24 hours being unable to flush our toilets, but it’s been very lovely to walk down to the beach in the evening after work or have the conveniences of a western grocery store.  Some of my closest friends on the ship have finished their commitments at various points during the summer so most of my free time has been spent making memories and saying good bye. Transitioning to the ship without certain faces has been difficult, but it is also giving me the chance to form deeper relationships with other friends and some familiar faces from the first year I was here have returned after taking the last year off, so I am excited to be with them again.

The Ship Yard hospitality team 
So what is a nurse doing on a hospital ship that is no longer a hospital, but a construction zone? No I haven’t been sleeping on the beach, though I was able to take advantage of the cheap airfare to Europe and stay with a couple friends for a much needed get away for and a week off work. For the majority of this ship yard I decided to stay and work in our hospitality department on board. This means that I have been very busy welcoming and orientating new arrivals onto the ship, helping with guest functions, doing some
Keeping up to date with our continuing education. We were
blessed have an instructor come and offer advanced and
pediatric life support classes for the long term nurses on board. 
deep cleaning of cabins, and many, many other random duties. I’ve been staying busy, but while I will be happy to get back to the hospital and caring for patients again, I have also really enjoyed working with the other hostesses and being a part of the hospitality department.

What’s next? As I type, the ship is sailing to Conakry, Guinea. The ship had been making plans to revisit Guinea a few years ago, but had to make the difficult decision to postpone their trip when Ebola threatened the safety of the ship. The Ebola outbreak claimed the lives of many medical staff in a country already struggling to provide for the needs of their people. Mercy Ship’s goal, besides the surgeries we do every day, will be to use the 10 months we are there to help strengthen the skills of those healthcare professionals left so they have access to the tools needed to build up their healthcare services.

The link below is for my American Family and Friends who have been patiently (or more likely impatiently) waiting to watch the Surgery Ship Series that was filmed during my first year with Mercy Ships. National Geographic has finally made it available to watch online through your cable provider. Don't have a cable provider? The series is also streaming on Hulu!!!

Watch all 8 episodes of the Surgery Ship!

While I am currently serving with Mercy Ships the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own. Mercy Ships has not reviewed nor do they endorse the content written within this blog.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Handing Over the Mirror

Group picture with the first 3 Thyroidectomies of the year.
Its been busy on A-ward this month! We are taking a break from obstetric fistula surgery. Our last fistula patients were discharge a little after the New Year. We will continue fistula surgeries in a couple months, but currently we are caring for general surgery. While I do miss the fistula ladies, I am happy to be back at the surgeries I started with here on the Africa Mercy.

Over the last few weeks A-ward has had 2 general surgeons in separate ORs operating. This means we are doing 6 to 8 surgeries a day. Our general patients don’t stay long. Half discharge the day after surgery and the other half stay a couple more days. By the end of the work week we are filled to capacity and then empty out over the weekend, ready to start a new week. On top of the double general surgeries A-ward is also caring for 3 pediatric eye surgery patients every week. This was my favorite time on the ship last year so I’m excited to be a part of it again.

Why do I love general surgery so much? Our general surgery patients don’t stay long. It’s harder to build relationships with them, but that doesn’t mean their time here on the Africa Mercy is any less impactful. The last few weeks have been such a blessing as I’ve helped care for so many people after a variety of surgeries. Sometimes I get busy and forget to see the beauty and blessings that surround me in the hospital, but then I’m reminded in the small ways, the impromptu day to day happenings, how much of a blessing it is to work on this ship and know my patients for the short time they are here. The following is one story of how a simple moment can mean so much if I just take the time to listen.

One of our ladies with a larger goiter before surgery getting
excited when the anesthesiologist came to assess her.  

When the first thyroidectomy patient returned to the ward at the beginning of general I was on shift orienting a new nurse. Our thyroid patients come to us with similar stories. One day the gland in their neck starts to grow into a goiter and they are helpless to stop it. How we feel about our physical appearance is something women all over the world struggle with, but add to that a cultural superstition that a deformity is a curse, a punishment for wrong doing, or the sign of a witch not looking as everyone else can be even more socially isolating. Many of our women come to us hidden under their scarves so the world cannot see.

Left untreated these thyroids can continue to grow until they literally strangle a person to death, but removing the goiter does even more than saving her life. Removing a goiter hands a women her life back; it gives her hope that she can be accepted, free of this burden she has been carrying. This is why on days like this first day back to general surgery one of my favorite things to do is to hand our patients a mirror. Even when sleepy and uncomfortable everyone has the same reaction, and this first patient was no different. I handed over the mirror and as she looked at her flat neck for the first time, she smiled with surprise then breathed a sigh of relief as her whole body relaxed. She held onto the mirror even as we worked and life went on around her. That mirror showed her that yes, what she hoped for is tangible.

As I watched this women’s reaction to her image in the mirror and saw the tears in the eyes of the new nurse with me, I couldn’t help but think how this mirror is a metaphor for the image God sees of you and me when viewing us through the blood of Jesus. Like these women, we too all live with an ugly life threatening burden, a burden which isolates us from God; however, unlike these women, we did do something to deserve
this burden we carry. Left untreated and unforgiven this burden, this curse, will lead to our own eternal death; however, we too still have hope because of the gift we have through Jesus and his sacrifice for us. Because of this blood, God does not see our burden (our sin); the burden is gone, it’s cut away, and when we see our new refection the way God sees us now, we too will smile in surprise at what he has done and breath in relief of the hope we have for eternity.

My personal donor page

While I am currently serving with Mercy Ships the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own. Mercy Ships has not reviewed nor do they endorse the content written within this blog.  Photo Credit to Saul Loubassa Bighonda and Jamie Barki the Mercy Ships photographers who took the pictures I've shared in the blog post. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Thank You for Your Love: Learning to be Incarnational

Patricia, assisted by chaplain Clementine, admires
herself in the mirror before her dress ceremony   
“Thank you for your love”: Patricia a young woman stood with 8 other women in front of a celebrating crowd. Just a week before she sat watching a similar celebration with tears streaming down her face. Whether those tears were for the joy she had in another’s healing, nervousness for her own outcome, or sadness at a memory remembered from a painful past I don’t know. On this day, however, there are no tears. When it is Patricia’s turn to share she is so filled with joy that she cannot speak at first, so she sings. Voices join hers and our God, the one who is the true healer, is praised. She tells us a little of her story, her embarrassment at university. She tells how she had grown so tired of wearing diapers to school. The embarrassment seemed to prove too much, but just as she decided to drop out and end her education God provided Mercy Ships and free surgery. She is going back to school, dry and no more diapers! After the celebration I walk an excited group of ladies out of the ship and we share last minute hugs as we say goodbye one last time on the dock. As I embrace Patricia she very softly says in my ear these 5 words: Thank you for your love.

Mercy Ships is unique when it comes to sharing the gospel. They follow an incarnational model when sharing about Christ. Incarnational differs from proclamational in that its main focus isn’t on preaching the message of the gospel and proclaiming it to those around us. Incarnational means the focus is on living like Jesus and allowing his love and truth to be spoken though how we live and interact with those around us. It doesn’t mean that we never speak the truths of God’s word; it means that we seek to demonstrate those truths as we live it out.

What does this look like within the hospital? Its hospital chaplains who lead the ward in a daily devotion and songs, but also spend hours in the ward getting to know patients, counselling and being a listening ear. Its nurses who pray for patients and each other out in the open and treat each other, our local day crew and patients with compassion, kindness, respect and love. Its day crew who are able to speak freely in our patients own language, and showing Christ’s love in the way they care. It’s not making it difficult for our Muslim patients to pray even though they pray to a different god, but instead treat these patients with the same love and respect we treat our Christian patients. Its nonhospital crew members coming down to the wards and bringing art projects to share or committing to visit a longer stay patient during the time they are with us. It’s loving a community when out in town and treating everyone with respect and kindness.

While Jesus was a teacher and a preacher, his message didn’t end with the words he spoke. Jesus is relational. When the blind man and the leper came to Jesus they were shown kindness. Jesus touched them, He healed them and then He spoke words of wisdom. When Zacchaeus, a sinner, sought Him out Jesus offered friendship and love. We are commanded in the bible to show this same kind of love. “A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34 -35).
One of our first weeks in Cameroon we invited 3 religious leaders onto the ship: A Christian pastor, a Muslin Imam and a traditionalist. They shared about their beliefs and answered questions so that we as a ship community would better understand our patients and the community in which we were now living. The traditionalist had grown up in a family who practiced the Christian religion and had left the church in search of answers. He said something that saddens me. He thanked us for his time on the ship and for the relationship he had built with the crewmember and day crew who had asked him to come. He said that his experience with Mercy Ships was the first time in his life that he had a conversation with a Christian who was not yelling at him in anger. How can we, as Christians, show the truth of God’s word when we are not also displaying His love in how we say it?

As I strive to be incarnational, I pray that my life also will be reflective of God’s loves to those patients I serve, but I have something to confess. I was nervous about being on the Women’s Health ward this year. Not only because it was different than anything else I have ever done in my 8 years of nursing, but because I was worried about connecting with adult patients. Last year I had the joys of working with both adults and children. When you don’t speak the language it is so much easier to connect with and show love to young children. Their love languages are cuddles and play, both of which I am good at. I also knew that since I would be charge nursing more frequently this year on the ward than last, I would have less one on one interaction with our patients. I was worried that I would not be able to display the love God placed in my heart in a way that would truly be felt by my adult patients. So even though I tried to trust God and his plan for the year, I still worried a bit about connection, and that’s when God put Mama Aissatou into my life.

My dear friend Mamma Aissatou
Aissatou, a women from the Extreme North region of Cameroon, was placed in the bed just behind the charge nurse deck on the ward. She has a special place in many of the nurses’ hearts. I call her Mamma Aissatou partly because she is older, but mostly because she mothered the ward. Mamma Aissatou has mothered 9 babies over the years, but sadly only 4 are living. Most of those babies were stillbirths, one of the last is what caused her fistula. She speaks Fulfulde (a common northern dialect) and French. So she especially looked out for those patients whom did not speak French and patiently translated for us when our Fulfulde translator wasn’t available. Love just poured out of her through her smile, her touch, her reassuring voice. She helped me learn a few words in Fulfulde so that I can now greet my northern patients when I come on shift. By the end of her stay I greeted her by calling her “mon amie” (French for my friend).

Mamma Aissatou was discharged a day earlier than I expected so I missed saying goodbye to her from the ward. Thankfully she returned for an outpatients appointment on the dock a week later so I went down to find her. She saw me first and called out for me: “mon amie!” As we embraced we both knew it would likely be that last time we would see each other this side of heaven. In that moment there were no translators; however, we didn’t really need one. Love is not spoken. Love doesn’t need translation.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Women's Health: The Strength of a Woman

Matakon, Jacqueline and Jose on deck 7 enjoying the sun.
These ladies were our first 3 patients for Women's health in Cameroon. 
In the most northern region of Cameroon, Matakon, a 15 year old girl is in labor. She did not choose to be pregnant this young. Her marriage to a man over 3 times her age was arranged between her father and her husband at the cost of a few cows. Now Matakon struggles to deliver a child, but her tiny body is unable to do so. She is in labor for many agonizing days. The baby dies inside her and she still struggles, until finally she is able to deliver her dead baby. The nightmare however is not over. Matakon goes to sleep without a baby in her arms. When she awakens she is wet. Had she wet herself in her sleep? Matakon soon discovers that she is unable to hold in her urine. During the prolonged obstructed labor she endured a hole formed in her bladder, creating a fistula between her bladder and vaginal wall. Urine now constantly drips down her leg, making her home and herself smell of stale urine. There is nothing Matakon can do to stop leaking, and her husband does not have the money for the expensive medical care she needs so Matakon continues to live as she is. For 8 long years she in unable to control the urine that flows from her.

Matakon during her dress ceremony, 

Christine’s child has also died inside her. At age 19 she has already delivered one healthy baby, but her second pregnancy does not end well. She labors for days with an obstructed labor. She finally receives a C-section, but the medical care she needed arrives too late to save her baby and the damage inside her has already been done. She too has developed an obstetric fistula and leaks urine for the next year.

Christine ready for her dress ceremony 

Jose has never had a problem giving birth. At 53 she has five healthy children. 7 years ago she was in need of medical care and underwent a simple operation. After the operation she discovered she was no longer in control of her urinating. She went back to the surgeon many times, but the surgeon dismissed her concerns. He refused to acknowledge his malpractice. Jose needed a second surgery to repair the damage caused during the first surgery, but she was out of money and did not have the energy to take a doctor to court. Jose started praying for a way to be healed.

Jose during her dress ceremony 

This year in Cameroon I am working with a totally different patient population then what I am used to. This year I am working in our Women’s Health Ward. The majority of the patients we will serve suffer from obstetric fistulas and have similar stories to the 3 shared above. A fistula is nearly always caused by an obstructed labor; however, it can also result from a surgical complication as in Jose’s story. A fistula can occur between the bladder and vagina, the rectum and vagina or both. Women with fistulas will have no control over their bodily functions and the resulting smell that engulfs them many times ostracizes them from their communities. It is not uncommon for them to be abandoned by their husbands and for them to live isolated within a culture where relationship and community is usually valued above most things. Imagine the feelings that many of these ladies must feel: helplessness, hopelessness, shame, loneliness.

 An obstetric fistula is the result of poverty. They are preventable, but in areas of the world where people do not have access to safe, affordable and timely healthcare they happen all too often. Women in the west can also suffer from an obstructed labor; the difference is that a women in the west has access to safe, timely and affordable healthcare. She can get the C-section she needs in time to prevent injury to herself and death to her child.

A fistula is a devastating condition which threatens to steal a woman’s identity and hope. It seeks to make women weak, but in the very short time I have known these women I have found the opposite to be true. These are truly the strongest women I know. Despite their fears and uncertainty, despite the distance they traveled, the doubts expressed by their neighbors, past failed attempts for a cure, the many obstacles which have stood in their way and made life difficult they retained hope within their hearts, they trusted Mercy Ships to help them and they usually did it with a smile still on their face. They have not allowed the difficulties in life to snuff out their joy.

The 3 women above are some of the first who received surgery onboard the Africa Mercy a little over 2 weeks ago. It’s a delicate surgery and not always successful. It takes a couple weeks for them to heal and they stay with us in the hospital during that time. What a joy it is to work on this ward and serve these woman. We laugh, love, sing and sometimes cry.

Singing during the dress ceremony 

On Monday I was able to celebrate the healing of these 3 women and 2 others during the ship’s first dress ceremony of the year. The dress ceremony is a time where the hospital chaplaincy provides each woman with a new, clean dress to symbolize their new start in life. They leave the ward and chaplaincy helps them prepare for the ceremony by fixing their head wraps, make up and jewelry. The time symbolizes the preparation of the church as the bride of Christ. They then enter the room to applause, cheers and song as we rejoice with them for their healing. They share their testimonies, sometimes through tears of joy. The party then continues in the hall and back on the ward with hugs, more songs, tears and laughter.

Christine sharing a more serious part of her beautiful testimony. 

What a joy it is to witness the end of a journey and the start of a new one within these woman’s lives. I am so happy to report on their physical healing, but there are deep wounds these women carry inside them that are not physical. Please pray for our ladies that during their time on the ship they would also find healing for any lingering emotional and spiritual wounds they carry with them. We want the woman coming to the ship to see their value and worthiness the way God sees them and we do this through the love that we show. Our love for our patients has not gone unnoticed. As Jose so eloquently put it during her testimony: “I have never seen love displayed in the way it is on Mercy Ships….. [because of that love] I was healed even before I received surgery”.    

While I am currently serving with Mercy Ships the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own. Mercy Ships has not reviewed nor do they endorse the content written within this blog.  Photo Credit to Saul Loubassa Bighonda and Shawn Thomson the Mercy Ships photographers who took the pictures I've shared in the blog post.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A New Start - Cameroon

View out the window in my cabin. 
I have been back on my floating home for just under a week. As I settle into life back on the ship I have been feeling a range of emotions. I am excited to be back and look forward to starting again, but part of me misses last year. Some of my friends are no longer on the ship, many of my coworkers are different and the ship is no longer in Benin which had become like home over the last year. At the same time I am getting excited about what this year has in store and how God will use me and those around me, both crew members and patients to bring him glory. It feels strange to start again where I started a year ago, but in a new country.

The ship is in Douala Cameroon where we are docked along the bank of a large river. We can’t see the ocean from the ship, which is very strange. The view from my cabin window is that of the river and its far bank. Standing on the deck of the ship I can make out Mount Cameroon one of Africa’s largest volcanoes in the distance.

Cameroon is a central African Country bordering Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. It has 2 official languages (French and English); however, the English areas are much smaller than the French. Most of our patients will speak one (or more) of the over 200 African dialects spoken throughout the country. The most common religions are Christianity, Islam and Traditionalism; however, the majority of Cameroonians actually practice a combination of 2 religions, mixing Traditional practices and beliefs with either Christianity or Islam.

A Ward Still mostly packed up. Lots of cleaning yet to be done.
The ship arrived in Cameroon on August 16th so by the time I arrived with a group of returning nurses the hospital was only just starting its set up process. All week we have been working hard to turn deck 3 back into a hospital, even as the first of our patients board to receive some of their pre-surgical testing. This year, with the help of Cameroon, Mercy Ships is trialing a new way to do patient screening. 30 local doctors were trained and have been traveling throughout the country screening potential patients over the last few months. This means that the chaotic mass screening days by Mercy Ship's screening team can be avoided and we started scheduled surgeon screenings with patients who had already passed the pre-screening process immediately.  Orthopedic surgeon screening has been going on over the last 2 days so lots of littles with soon to be straightened legs have been visiting to get their preliminary x-rays.

B-ward with one side emptied. Now there's
room to clean the walls and the floors.
Setting up the beds on the newly cleaned B-ward!
As I mentioned above, this has been a crazy week for me. I flew out of the United States on Saturday the 19th and arrived exhausted on the 20th in Cameroon. I didn’t have any time to recover from my jet lag before setting to work unpacking, cleaning, scrubbing, and setting up the wards. On Friday afternoon I helped with our hospital day crew orientation, during which I was able to meet many of the day crew I will be working with over the next year. Day crew are local crew members who don’t live on the ship. They are hired by Mercy Ships to help in a variety of ways. The week has flown by and I am thankful for a weekend to recover and rest. Next week will not be quite as busy for me. On Sunday the new nurses will be arriving and will start orientation which I will only have brief involvement in. At the end of the week we will have ward specific education and time to get to know our coworkers both nurses and day crew. The hospital will then open the following Monday, with patients being admitted in the evening for surgery Tuesday morning.
Can't set up the beds without hanging curtains. 
Day Crew Orientation 

The hospital isn't the only department busy setting up. Here the deck crew
is helping to set up our dock space. this structure will provide shade for our
patients waiting to see the admissions nurses and those coming for out patient
And so my second year with Mercy Ships begins. Please keep me, the ship (crew, day crew and patients) and the country of Cameroon in your prayers. Here are some specific prayer request that I have.

1.      That I would be protected spiritually. Last year, especially during the second half of the field service, I felt under spiritual attack. This took many different forms. I am listing it as my first request because even if you don’t pray for me in any other way, I ask that you would commit to regularly praying for my spiritual protection throughout the year.

2.      That I would be protected physically. Last year I was sick 7 or 8 times during the field service. Prayers that I would stay in good health and not have a repeat of illness this year would be appreciated.

3.      That God would prepare our hearts (crew and day crew) for service. That we would show his love in all we say and do, in the way that we work together, and in the way that we care for patients.

4.      That God would prepare the hearts of our patients. That they would see Him in a new light. That they would see themselves and their worth the way He see them. That they would feel loved and accepted.

5.      That our patients would be protected both physically and spiritually.

6.      For the many crew members traveling to the ship this week and those starting new jobs. That they would arrive safely, that they would not struggle with jet lag, and that they would not become overwhelmed.

Author's Note: While I am currently serving with Mercy Ships the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own. Mercy Ships has not reviewed nor do they endorse the content written within this blog. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Trust: God is Good All the Time

The AFM in dry dock
I sit in an empty, muggy hot cabin. The ship is in dry dock, meaning it has been lifted out of the water for maintenance. The air conditioners which require seawater flowing into special compartments in the ships bottom do not work when there is no sea water to cool them. All of my close friends have traveled home, some who will return and some who won’t; I myself will be leaving for a visit to the States in just a few days. Since arriving to Port in Los Palmas, Grand Canary I have been busy on my days off work taking in new surroundings, trying new things, seeing the sights and fitting as much into the short time I will be here as I can, but now as I sit in my cabin after a long walk outside I think about the year and the many things I am processing from it.

This year God has been working with me on trust. I think this is something everyone has a level of difficulty with; trusting something out of one’s control is really hard, it’s even harder when trust means accepting that sometimes things will not turn out the way I hope or pray for.

Innocent near the end of his hospital stay. Innocent had a bleeding complication
 weeks post op which should have been fatal but he is now completely recovered.
Photo credit: Jasper Ringoir.
This year I have learned to trust God with my patients. This is easy when things are going well. It’s easy when I can see patients improving physically and emotionally every day. It easy when patients who are slow to heal make miraculous improvement after being showered in prayer. It’s easy, when I witness a miracle called Innocent walk down the gangway, healed after suffering a surgical complication which should have killed him or at the very least left him brain damaged, but didn’t.
Holding the unit of my blood I would share with B

There are times when trusting God with my patients is very easy, but it has not always been easy this year. Just after Christmas a 1 year old girl, who I will refer to as B, entered my life. A little girl who was very sick, with a large tumor that was sucking away her energy and nutrients and even causing her to be anemic. I donated my blood for B and watched her condition improve as we cared for her, but the improvement was short lived, soon new tumors grew and biopsy results came back positive for cancer.

Mercy Ships is not equipped to handle cancer, but a generous donor promised to cover the cost of the 3 chemo drugs needed to save this little girls life. A drug regimen which for this particular type of cancer had an 80% success rate. Many crew members worked to set up a way to get this little one the medicine she needed. A local hospital, working with the ship, had the capacity to administer the chemo, but the medications needed were not available in Benin.

As we waited for the medications to arrive we watched this little ones condition get worse and worse. New tumors spread to her lungs and breathing took all her energy. When the chemo drugs finally arrived a difficult decision had to be made. Was B strong enough to endure the chemo or would the chemo only cause more pain at the end of her life?

I wish this story had a happy ending, but the reality is that this little one year old girl was placed on palliative care and died because the medications she needed arrived only days too late, medications which would have given her an 80% chance of survival. This little girl didn’t die because of cancer, she died because of poverty and the broken healthcare system it creates. That makes me angry. It’s hard to see the pain of a broken world. It’s hard to trust God when things like this happen.

During this time I was awaken in the morning with thoughts of B. In that moment my spirit was so heavy with despair as I worried about what would happen, I was unable even to pray for her. As I laid in my bed thinking of B, I believe that God gave me a vision because suddenly I saw this little one standing at a crossroads. In my heart I knew that one of the roads led to physical healing and the other road led to physical death. As I agonized over which path she should take, B looked back over her shoulder, staring straight into my eyes. I heard Gods voice speak to my soul “You know that I haven’t left [B]; I am still with her.” As soon as he said this, a great pillar of white sand began circling. It completely engulfed her and I knew it to be the presence of God which would remain with her, and guide her.

This story is hard to tell. It still makes me very sad to think of; however, I think it is important to remember that just because things do not always have joyful endings this side of heaven, and even though I can’t tell you why one patient receives a physical miracle while another does not, God is still good and he is still present.

We live in a fallen world. The curse of sin has created so much pain. Disease and famine take lives; selfishness turns men into corrupt politicians, and unforgiveness leads to war. To many, it would seem that the world is beyond saving, it’s lost, hopeless even. This is the lie that makes trust so very difficult at times, but the truth is that the world is not hopeless. What happens during this physical life is not the end. The reality is that we are at war. We fight in a battle, but one that has already been won. Jesus Christ has paid the price to defeat the curse sin has brought this world. The work we do on the ship is a tiny refection of the hope and healing He brings.

At the moment the fight rages on as two sides fight for the souls of men, but one day Jesus will return to earth to restore it to its original intent and to bind evil, death and destruction from the earth for the rest of eternity. Oh how I look forward to that day! In the meantime, I know of one little girl who is sitting in the presence of God, completely healed. She has no more pain and the tears have been removed from her eyes as she worships her creator and awaits her family whom also love God and will one day be reunited will her.

“See, God has come to save me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. The Lord God is my strength and my song; he has given me victory.”   – Isaiah 12:2

Names and details have been specifically removed to protect the privacy of B’s family.  As always, Mercy Ships has not reviewed this blog post. The views shared here are my own and result from my own experiences caring for B and speaking with others involved in her care. Please pray for B’s family, that they would not lose hope, but that God would comfort them and continue to be their strength and song for the future. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Images of the Benin Field Service

One year ago today I was packing to leave my home in the United States to live on a ship and serve the people of Benin. It is hard to believe that it has been a year. We are literally in our last few days here in Benin. Our last surgery was on Friday. We have already closed down and begun cleaning B-ward. The hospital’s last day open will be this coming Friday. As I type this I am working a night shift with nearly nothing to do. A-ward has only 4 admitted patients left on the ward and 3 patients who are staying as outpatients because they are not quite ready to return home, but we have also closed down the hospital’s outpatient extension center (HOPE center).

It is strange knowing that we are so close to being done here. I have so many feelings swimming around inside my heart and mind: excitement as well as exhaustion as we near the finish line; sadness over leaving this country and loneliness after close friends leave for home, but love and joy for the relationships God has provided.

So much has happened this year. So many people, coworkers and patients, have touched me. I would love to share all these moments with you, but that would be impossible to do. Instead, I will share with you the images that I feel sum up my experience here in Benin on the AFM. They say “a picture speaks a thousand words” so please enjoy this blog of pictures along with a few patients' stories.

 I started this journey to Africa in Texas where I spent a month with this beautiful group of people I call my onboarding family. While in Texas we focused on God, ourselves, what living in community would look like, and what living and working with
other cultures would look
like. We then spent 2 weeks applying our class work and growing closer as a team in South Africa, by helping 2 local missionaries. We did construction projects and supported them through prayer and encouragement.                          
My first glimpse of the ship. Not a great picture but imagine our
 excitement as we finally arrived after a month and a half preparing.  

After sailing around the Cape of Africa and then sailing from the most southern tip all the way to Benin we finally arrived to the Port of Cotonou, Benin on 18 August, 2016. It was an exciting day as we were guided into the port and lowered the gangway.

 Our advance team had been working with the local government and the port to ensure they were ready for us, so it didn't take long for us to set up. This dock space would soon become an extension of the ship, housing our outpatient and rehab tents, as well as, become our backyard and a parking lot for the many Mercy Ships vehicles we need to do our jobs off ship.

We got to work setting up the hospital as the screening team began seeing and selecting the patients we would soon be caring for. I have a deep respect for our screening team. Its a hard job. Besides the long days, it can also be an emotionally difficult job. The few days of screening I assisted with impacted me greatly as the enormity of the need which faced us was displayed in real life in front of me for the first time.


In early September we were ready to open our doors to patients. My home ward for my entire time here as been A-ward. We do primarily general surgery, but we also take B-ward's (the ward which rotated specialties) overflow as those patients became more stable. We also cared for some of the easier D-ward patients (head and neck tumors and other facial surgeries) when they became to full. Because of this I had the chance to care for quite a variety of patients and grew very close to many of the longer term patients.

These older four were our very first plastics patients. Plastics season ran for the first few months of the service. Most of these surgeries were to release burn contractures. Most of these patients were children, but we also cared for many adult patients.

Hanging out on deck 7 during the hour a day the stable patients are able
to get some fresh air and sometimes watch a ship come in.

I had shared about these 2 littles in one of my earliest blog post. All the littles I have cared for this past year have a special place in my heart, but these 2 (Marina on the left and Ruth on the Right) have been my most memorable. Without going into to much detail, because it makes me cry when I think about what these little ones have been though, both 5 year olds were servery burned in cooking accidents. The healthcare they needed to treat their burns to their upper bodies resulted in contractures which made it impossible for the girls to raise their arms above their heads. They spent many weeks with us in the hospital healing after their scares were released, being kept in splints to allow the skin to heal. After discharge they spent even more time working hard in physical therapy. Today both girls are done with treatment and back at home. As you can see in the pictures below they now have normal range of motion. Praise God!!!   


November and December brought our orthopedic patients. These little ones were so strong. The had already conquered so much learning to walk on legs that were bent. They came to Mercy Ships with a variety of orthopedic conditions. They worked so hard, even being made to stand and take their first steps on casted legs only 3 days after their bones were broken, rotated and put back together.  Weeks and sometimes months of physical therapy followed even after their casts were removed, but one by one these little ones walked away form the ship for the last time on newly straightened legs. 
Lots of time in bed after surgery means daily exercise sessions. 

Practicing walking on deck 
It wasn't all smiles, but everybody has to walk. 
After the cast were removed there was still
a lot of work to be done with physical therapy
Ortho season took us right up to Christmas.

This is Yasmine. Yasmine and I met at the Hope Center prior to her admission to the Africa Mercy. I was visiting some of our plastics patients who were staying at our outpatient's center and this little 5 year old decided we were friends. She started crying when it was time for me to go, but I promised that soon she would come and see me on the ship. The very next day I was down on the dock saying goodbye to another patient and was surprised from behind by a great big hug from Yasmine. Yasmine was hilarious to have on the ward. She is feisty and sassy. She is dramatic, stubborn and knows exactly what she wants. She quickly earned the nickname Princess Yasmine, which she wore with pride.
Yasmine and myself the day we met. 

Yasmine prior to surgery

Yasmine with her new friend ready to be discharged from rehab.  
Working hard with physical therapy to use her new legs.

This is Maurinho. At 8 years old all this little one wanted to be able to do was play football (soccer) with his friends. When he played at home he always got left behind due to his severely bowed legs. This kids is a champion with the sweetest heart. He was always ready for whatever we asked of him, and did it with a smile on his face; he was even one of the very few patients who didn't scream through his first cast change after seeing the cast saw. Maurinho was tired of being the one left behind. My favorite memory of him is after he had learned to walk with crutches. He always took the lead  when the kids walked the hall, except one day after moving out of the way for a stretcher he was suddenly in the very back. A look of determination came over his face and he began pumping his arms and casted legs faster then I had ever seen him. He soon recovered his lead, which is where he stayed. This kid won't let anyone leave him behind ever again. 

My favorite thing about this picture is the look
on his mama's face as he learns to kick.
He as come a long way since this picture.
Maurinho can now run! 

Maurinho's little brother David who I fell in love with. If I was working,
he was with me. If I was working on another ward his mama would bring
him to me. We hung out so much the the ortho parents started calling me "Yovo (white) Mamma." 

After a 2 week break for Christmas we were busy yet again. We went into a second stage of plastics and started on the longer stay general surgeries, which included goiters and lipomas (benign tumors). January was a very abnormal month for the predominately adult general surgery side of A-ward. We were taking advantage of a pediatric general surgeon so the ward was full of littles, including the above adorable 10 month old Patricia who had a lipoma removed from her leg.

Adiza is an older woman who had been living with a goiter that would not stop growing for decades. It was the largest goiter removed this field service and had begun to interfere with her breathing as it had wrapped around her trachea. She didn't even look like the same woman when she came out of surgery.
A-Ward also cared for many plastics
patients, during the second stage of plastics,
such as 14 year old Baki above who
lost one arm, and badly injured his other arm
and one ankle after an electrical burn.  

Marthe (pronounced Martha) was another patient who touched my heart deeply. Our plastic surgeon removed a nearly 30lb tumor from her back. We first met when I was working a night shift on B-ward. I cared for her immediately preop. The following is an excerpt of what I wrote on my Facebook page the day after my first interaction with her. 

"She was already asleep when I arrived for my shift at 10 pm so I didn't really get to interact with her until I woke her early in the morning to start her preop preparations. This particular patient was having a very large tumor removed from her shoulders/back. It had been growing since she was a baby and now as an adult she has been carrying this burden with her wherever she goes. The tumor on her back made it very difficult for her to clean herself properly without help, and it wept fluid constantly so at home she was always wrapped in plastic to catch the drainage and keep herself dry. I spent about 30 minutes with her in the bathroom helping her with her preop bath, tucking incontinent pads around her tumor and helping her tie a sheet around everything to keep it all in place. As we worked, I was given a glimpse of the day to day struggle this beautiful woman deals with, and my heart just broke. I was angry at this tumor that seemed to have stolen so much. As we stepped out of the bathroom I said to her through a translator. 'That was probably the last time you will ever have to do any of that because we are getting rid of this tumor today!' She was very serious for a moment and at first I thought she might not have heard the translator, but then she suddenly stood straight, laughed loudly and threw her arms around my neck in probably one of the tightest embraces I have shared with a patient."

Marthe had a long road to recovering. Nearly her entire upper back required skin grafting and her healing was complicated by an infection. She was in pain after surgery; it was hard to see, but slowly she improved, her skin grew and healed; she is now at home, free of the burden she carried with her for as long as she can remember.  

March brought a brief change to A-ward as we took a break from general surgery and took the pediatric eye patients. This was one of my favorite times working here. There is nothing like watching a child who has had very poor vision, see for the first time. watching a toddler laugh, waving his arms in front of his face, because he has just discovered his hand is pure joy.  

Elodie, Marie and Jacques with their parents: 3 siblings all with congenital cataracts. Their mother also had surgery on the ship to remove her own cataracts as a teen. The picture directly above shows them after surgery wearing their new sunglasses. 
Fistula ladies posing with their doctor just before their dress ceremony. 

The spring also brought the fistula patients to B-ward. obstetric fistulas are caused by an obstructed labor, usually resulting in a dead baby. The prolonged labor puts pressure on the bladder and makes a hole. The woman then leak urine constantly. I never cared for any of these strong women, but I was blessed to attend some of their dress ceremonies during which the women were pampered by having their makeup done and given a clean new dress with jewelry. The dress was symbolic of their new start on life.

The most exciting news about the fistula patients is that Mercy Ships was unable to fill all the surgical slots. This might not sound like great news, but it is. Mercy Ships based planned surgery spots on the needs they have seen in Benin during past services, but something in this country has changed for the better because the need for fistula repair was so much less then the Ship was expecting. This is such awesome news! The fistula surgeries were cut short and the ship was able to bring in more general surgeons. For the last couple months both A-ward and B-ward have been doing general surgery and many people who had previously been placed on a wait list have received the surgeries they needed.

And so ends this field service to Benin. During the year I've witnessed joy and sorrow. I've experienced miracles and learned to trust God even when outcomes are not as we hoped. I have been so blessed to have been a part of this. Looking back over the year I can see the reflection of God. He allows us to be healing hands to those patients he has entrusted in our care, but this is just a picture of the spiritual healing he brings, one that is complete, perfect and all encompassing. Please pray with me that those patients whom were impacted by Mercy Ships this year, those we could heal physically and those we could not, would experience the healing that God offers because we all are in need of His healing. The healing God provides is the only healing which is eternal.

Author's Note: While I am currently serving with Mercy Ships the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own. Mercy Ships has not reviewed nor do they endorse the content written within this blog.  Photo Credit to Kat Sotolongo,Timmy Baskerville, & Justine Forrest, the Mercy Ship's photographers who took many the pictures in this blog post as well as the amateur ward photographers. Patients are asked at admission for consent for photographs to to used by Mercy Ships and Mercy Ships crew. It is made very clear at that time that saying no will not effect their care. Only specific people who have been educated on the policies and have been pre-approved are allowed to photograph our patients.