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.