Africa Mercy, the largest nongovernmental hospital ship, has a crew from 45 nations.
Elizabeth LeFeber, BSN, RN, a 2010 graduate of Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana, USA, recently volunteered with Mercy Ships, serving on the Africa Mercy in Madagascar from 27 December 2015 to 20 February 2016. LeFeber responds to questions about an experience she found both rewarding and challenging—as well as life-changing. RNL:
How did you hear about Mercy Ships?
I was introduced to Mercy Ships sometime around middle school while reading The Dangerous Voyage
by Dave Gustaveson, a teen fiction book about an American youth group that goes on various mission trips to make different film documentaries. In this book, they were on board with Mercy Ships.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
I was inspired by the idea of a medical ship that provides free surgeries for the poor. My desire to serve with Mercy Ships in the future was one of the factors that influenced my becoming a nurse. I decided that if I made it through nursing school, I would definitely spend some time serving on the ship. A big draw for me was that Mercy Ships is a Christian organization. As a Christian, I am motivated by my faith to love and serve, so I welcomed the opportunity to serve the Malagasy, the indigenous people of Madagascar. RNL:
What nursing skills did you use? Did you learn any new skills?
As an admission nurse, I strengthened many of my current skills. Obtaining EKGs, gathering blood specimens, and assessing for pertinent allergy and history information were skills that I used frequently. I also find that I can now comfortably interact with patients and their families through use of an interpreter, a skill that I will carry with me wherever I go. I was surprised to find I could improvise when needed to provide nursing care. While out on a day trip, one of our fellow shipmates came down with heatstroke. After our instant icepack wore out on the ride back to the ship, I asked that a sock soaked in water periodically be held near the car’s air conditioning vent to maintain a cool compress.
What kinds of health problems did you encounter?
I helped admit patients with tumors, goiters, hernias, obstetric fistulas, facial reconstructions, cleft lips and cleft palates, and various burn contractures. These patients ranged from infants to a few elderly. RNL:
Were there any diseases or health conditions that you hadn’t seen in your U.S. nursing experience?
Noma, a type of gangrene, is a disease of poverty caused by infection in an individual who is often malnourished and/or immunocompromised. The infection attacks the body and can literally eat a hole in a person’s skin, usually his or her face, in a matter of days. While I did not see anyone with active Noma, I saw several patients who had had surgery initially to correct the Noma and returned for further reconstruction. Another disease that I came in contact with was obstetric fistula. Often caused by prolonged obstructed labor, these fistulas at times would completely isolate and shame women with this condition.
What non-nursing activities did you participate in?
I went on two different Mercy Ministries trips—one to a children’s home and another to a deaf school. Both were great opportunities to interact with the Malagasy. Though there was a bit of a language gap—I had learned only limited phrases in their language—smiles and hugs went a long way. To relax in the evenings, I also joined the onboard choir that practiced once a week and sang monthly for different ship gatherings. It was truly a blessing to be part of all these activities. RNL:
How did this volunteer work affect you personally?
I’m still learning how the trip has changed me. I have a deeper appreciation for the medical care available in the States and other developed countries, and I became aware of the huge gap in affordable and effective surgical care that exists. I was reminded that we can show love in many ways—from performing lifesaving surgery to keeping a clean floor, serving warm food, or giving a smile. In this video, patients on the Africa Mercy share what love means to them: RNL:
Do you have an especially memorable experience to share?
One of my most challenging experiences, yet one of the most rewarding, was my encounter with baby Priscilla and her mom. Priscilla, who had a cleft lip and palate, had a severe respiratory infection—a fairly common problem for babies without a palette, who have trouble swallowing and therefore aspirate. They came to our admission tent multiple times before Priscilla was healthy enough to be carried up to the ship to have her surgery the following day. Although postponing the surgery again and again was heartbreaking, it was rewarding to hug and be there for them through the waiting period and to teach her mom how to administer various medications. When I stopped by to see them after surgery, Priscilla’s mom recognized me and smiled. She showed me Priscilla's dressing on her newly repaired lip!
Photos ©Mercy Ships.
Editor’s note: The Africa Mercy, the world’s largest nongovernmental hospital ship, typically has a crew of 400 from 45 nations serving onboard. For more information.