Everyone had looks of disbelief on their faces as they walked towards me. There were unknown machines and gadgets everywhere. For many, it was the first time they’d ever seen a white person.
‘Are you sure this is all free?’ they asked me repeatedly. ‘I’ve never been given anything for free.’
I can only imagine it was like being beamed to an alien spacecraft for the patients I was greeting on board the Mercy Ship.
‘It’s all free,’ I reassured them through a translator. ‘We’re here to help.’
Travelling around West Africa, the Mercy Ship, which I was volunteering on as a nurse, is a fully-stocked floating hospital. It’s designed to provide surgery and treatment for some of the poorest people in the world.
‘I’ll be gone for five months,’ I told my mum Shirin, 62, back in Auckland.
Knowing I’d always wanted to do something like this she was excited for me. Now, here I was in Madagascar, about to live out my dream. The work was very confronting though. Men, women and children of every age arrived with horrendous conditions, which were easily treatable.
‘He can’t walk,’ one mother said, showing me her son’s bowed legs.
It was a common problem caused by a vitamin D deficiency. The bones in his legs hadn’t grown properly and he needed surgery to correct them. Other problems included cleft palates, which people dealt with all their lives.
‘This would have been treated at birth back home,’ I said to colleagues.
It made me feel so lucky and privileged to live in a country where these things are taken for granted. Cataracts, hernias and tumours were the other big issues our patients faced.
‘My daughter has a tumour in her mouth,’ a mum showed me.
The little girl could hardly eat or swallow because of the growth which, without our intervention, would have killed her. The surgical team removed it and she was on her way in a few days. Watching the parents’ stress evaporate as their child was successfully treated was incredible.
‘I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to have a sick child in Africa,’ I told Mum on a Skype call.
The local hospitals tried their best, but they were basic and often unsterilised. The poor staff were always stressed by how little they could do. It made my job feel so worthwhile.
When my time on the Mercy Ship ended, I agreed to come back for another five months. Of course there were challenges, like the lack of alone time. As a white woman, I also got pointed at everywhere I went.
But the good parts far outweighed the hard. I met Pam and Kirsty, two other nurses from Australia and New Zealand who became my best friends. And with 400 people from 34 countries on board the ship, there was never a dull moment!
I’m sure Mum and my dad, John, must have been expecting the call I made in April 2016, to tell them I’d be staying on the ship for another whole year.
‘That’s great, love,’ Mum said. ‘It’s a long time though!’
But I knew there was so much more I could do. On my third stint, we travelled to the nation of Benin, near Nigeria. Now an ‘old timer’ on the ship, I wasn’t easily shocked. But when a woman called Marthe arrived for treatment, her tumour was like nothing I’d ever seen.
‘I’ve had it all my life,’ she said taking off her cloak.
Underneath was a 16-kilogram dark brown tumour stretching from her neck halfway down her back. She looked like she was carrying a backpack under her clothes. It was leaking pus and the smell was unmistakable.
She was only 32, the same age as me. Compared to my blessed life, hers had been so full of hardship. I couldn’t imagine how she’d coped having kids and working with this burden weighing her down.
The tumour was benign but fast growing. In New Zealand or Australia something similar would have been removed once it grew to the size of a pea, but our surgeons had a very complicated job ahead.
‘We’ll remove the tumour and use skin grafted from your legs and lower back to replace it,’ she was told.
With her kids seven hours away, she spent three months on the ward with only me and the other nurses for support.
‘I can’t do this,’ she’d groan some days as we painfully spent hours changing her dressings.
But the day she was well enough to leave was incredible.
‘I never believed this could happen,’ she said, hugging us all. ‘Thank you.’
Marthe is just one of the thousands of patients helped by Mercy Ships every year and I’m so proud of the part I’ve played.
I cried so hard when I had to leave, but it’s all volunteer work and I had to go home and make some money! After the experience working with kids, I’ve now got a job in a paediatric hospital, which I love. I don’t think my travelling days are over yet, though.
There’s so much more to be done. This is just the beginning of my adventures.
This story originally appeared in that’s life! Issue 17, 26 April 2018.
ABOUT MERCY SHIPS
Mercy Ships is a faith-based 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 82,000 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, 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. For more information, go to www.mercyships.org.nz