Mon, 27 Nov, 2017
My life-changing experience volunteering in Africa
Pat Munro, 68, originally trained as an enrolled nurse when she was just 16. She joined the Royal NZ Nursing Corp at 19 and met her husband in the army. She moved to Auckland in 1986 when she commenced work at Greenlane Hospital and soon found herself in the operating rooms where she has been ever since.
Using my operating theatre skills to provide essential surgery for Africa’s poorest people was something I first heard about through a work colleague. She had volunteered on board the Mercy Ship a couple of times and was deeply impacted by the experience. At this stage of my life and career it felt like the right time to ‘give something back’, and working on a hospital ship sounded like something I would enjoy.
Mercy Ships spends 10 months at a time in a West African nation, using the 16,000 tonne vessel Africa Mercy as a platform to provide free surgery and associated healthcare services. In addition to six surgical specialities offered the crew work to achieve the best outcomes by mentoring local health professionals, and strengthening the infrastructure they will leave behind.
After a rigorous application process, an arm full of shots and too many hours on planes, I arrived into Benin, West Africa in March for a six-week tour-of-duty as an operating theatre nurse.
The size and pace of the hospital ship was a surprise. The Africa Mercy has volunteer crew of 480 in medical, maritime and operational areas, from around 40 different countries. About 200 local people are employed mainly as translators. Thankfully there is always a bunch of Kiwis on board, and we got together every few weeks for a meal and a catch up on news from home.
One of the things I enjoyed the most on board and in the theatre particularly, was the camaraderie. Everyone is there for the same purpose, and on the same ‘salary’ - which is nothing! Everyone just cooperates and gets on with the job.
My time on board made such an impact that only three months after I got home, I was surprised to find myself on the way back to the hospital ship - this time to Cameroon. Another theatre nurse had cancelled their service, so at the last minute l stepped into their shoes, and bunk, for another eight weeks.
Pat volunteered with Mercy Ships for six- weeks in Benin, West Africa and eight weeks in Cameroon
As I arrived at the beginning of the Cameroon field service this time, we were preparing the operating theatres for surgery after the sail down, and the admissions clinics were just beginning. This allowed me the opportunity to go down to the dock while our patients were being screened by the surgeons. It is one thing to see images in the media, but to actually see the severity of people’s problems, and to be face-to-face with the extreme medical conditions they suffered was heart-breaking.
Pat worked in the operating theatres providing free surgery for people in extreme poverty
For the first three weeks in Cameroon I worked in the Women’s Health operating theatre. We did surgical repairs for women who had suffered from obstructed labour. Because there is no access to even basic health care, in these cases not only does the baby usually die, but the mother endures a painful rupture called an obstetric fistula, which leaves her permanently incontinent. As a result she is often rejected and shamed even by her family because of her odour. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in developing nations.
I remember one lady in particular. We finished her surgery and were about to transfer her to bed in the ship’s ward. She grabbed my hand and, through the interpreter, profusely thanked us for what we had done. She had lived with this problem for a decade, and was just so overjoyed to finally be cured. There was not a dry eye in the theatre. It was just so heartfelt and moving.
After the women have recovered from fistula surgery, the chaplaincy team on board has a special ‘dress ceremony’ for them. Many of them had no clean clothes, so Mercy Ships gifted them a new African outfit to go home in. The new clothing symbolises a new beginning as they returned to their families. I was able to attend one ceremony, and it was amazing to see our patients all dressed up in colourful outfits and matching headdresses for the occasion. There was lots of singing and dancing of course, and the women all shared about how long they had been suffering before they were offered free surgery on the ship. Some of the stories were tragic, but seeing their faces radiant because of their healing was very emotional. I am so glad I was able to participate; it was one of the highlights of my time in Africa.
The Mercy Ships crew create a special celebration with new outfits for the women healed of obstetric fistula
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of fun times too. A group of us would go into town during our time off, and we discovered Maison H – the most amazing patisserie and ice creamery you have ever seen. This necessitated getting up early on Friday mornings for an exercise class! On a Saturday I’d often go into the local craft market to spend hours browsing the incredible array of vibrant fabrics, visit local areas of interest, or go out for indigenous cuisine with some of our operating theatre translators.
Getting to know some of her patients outside of theatre was an extraordinary experience
I always knew that I was privileged to have the life I have now, but I think I worry less about the little things that often bother us in the western world. I think my time on board the Mercy Ships has made me much more tolerant and understanding. Would I go again? In a heart-beat!
About Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships is a faith-inspired charity which delivers free, world-class healthcare services, capacity-building and sustainable development aid to those without access in the developing world. Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships has performed more than 84,477 life-changing or life-saving operations such as cleft lip and palate repairs, cataract removal, orthopaedic procedures, facial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repairs. Services valued at more than NZ$1.25 billion have directly benefitted more than 2.56 million people in 70 nations. Each year, around 1,000 volunteers from up to 40 nations, including New Zealand, serve with Mercy Ships. Professionals like surgeons, dentists, nurses, healthcare trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers and teachers donate their time and skills to the effort. Mercy Ships New Zealand, one of 16 international support offices, is based in Auckland. For more information click here.
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