This guest blog post was written by WOCN member Ann-Marie Waechter, BSN, RN, CWCN, MS-BC.
Photo above: The advance team for Mercy Ships worked in Benin prior to the ship’s arrival to prepare arrangements for the Africa Mercy’s field service. They greet the floating hospital in matching African dress as the vessel sails in to dock in Cotonou. ©Mercy Ships / credit: Katie Keegan
A New Beginning
After a full life of school, study, marriage and raising children, my childhood dream is realized. My husband, Tom, took early retirement two years ago and asked, “How about looking into volunteering for Mercy Ships?” From the age of 10, after reading about the hospital ship, SS Hope, I knew I wanted to be a nurse and someday work on a hospital ship. Maybe because patience is not one of my virtues, I never imagined I would live so much life and see my dream realized at the age of 60! In the fall of 2014, after applying and waiting 18 months for a position to become available, Tom and I reported to Mercy Ships headquarters in Texas for our “Onboarding Training.” We spent five weeks in Texas and then our onboarding group headed for Madagascar for two weeks of required field training. There we began to learn the realities of living and working as a community.
When we were first contacted with the news that, finally, there were positions for both of us on the ship, we were asked if it mattered to us where the ship was going – it struck me as an odd question. However, for the first time ever, the Africa Mercy sat out in the water with nowhere to go. Originally scheduled to head for Benin, Ebola had broken out in West Africa, leaving the ship unable to fulfill its promise to the government of Benin to spend 10 months in the port of Cotonou. Although the Africa Mercy successfully completes thousands of specialized surgeries each year, we are not equipped to effectively address infectious diseases such as Ebola.
After a lot of prayers, miracles opened doors and in what would normally take six to 18 months to sign agreements and protocols with a receiving government, Mercy Ships was able to do in five days. The way was open for the Africa Mercy to be welcomed into Toamasina, Madagascar.
After an amazing 18 months and two field services in Madagascar, we have finally arrived in Benin to fulfill our promise from two years ago. Back in West Africa, where the work of the Africa Mercy has been focused over the years, the crew that has been here before were beaming with excitement as we sailed into the port and capital city of Cotonou – our new home for the next 10 months.
Our advance team, already here for three months, and an African band were here to welcome us. Before the end of the day, we will have been welcomed by the First Lady of the country and top officials in a formal ceremony.
And so we begin again… the Africa Mercy, the flagship of Mercy Ships, following the “2,000 year old model of Jesus, to provide hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor” will stay in Benin for the next 10 months providing specialized surgery to the poorest of the poor, those who would have no other access to the surgical care we provide. The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery published a report in 2015 stating that there are four times as many deaths worldwide resulting from lack of access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthetic care than from malaria, TB and HIV combined. Mercy Ships works to fill that gap.
We docked on a Thursday and by Friday there was a flurry of activity on and off the ship. The five hospital wards, along with the OR complex, with everything secured for sail, have to be unpacked, cleaned, sterilized and setup. The nurses that were already onboard cleaned everything twice with Tristel – and I mean everything. Every wall, ceiling, floor, cabinet, counter, piece of equipment, cord, mattress, bed frame, bin, trash receptacle, bio-waste container and more, was deep cleaned by the nurses who will use these wards to care for the approximate 1,700 patients who will receive surgery on this field service. The pharmacy was opened, cleaned and shipping containers organized with the medications for the field service, for patients and crew alike, along with the lab and radiology.
A team of people from the United States helped set up all the facilities off the ship, which includes huge tents on the dock housing our admissions, rehab, ponseti and screening teams, as well as our infant feeding program and outpatient clinic. The outpatient clinic is where all our wound care is done and it will by my “home” until June. In town, we have facilities loaned to us by the government for the duration of our stay, which will house the dental clinic, eye clinic and the Hospital Outpatient Extension (H.O.P.E.) Center.
The flurry of activities included the beginning of screening. For the next three weeks, our team of nurses will pre-screen as many people as they can, who line up outside the screening center to see if their condition fits the criteria of the surgeons who will soon arrive. It is a difficult and emotionally challenging job; possibly the most difficult on the ship. We have a limited number of surgical slots for each surgical specialty: plastics, orthopedics, maxillofacial, general and women’s health.
Although many people come with surgical conditions, much more come with non-surgical conditions hoping for help. Some are palliative and are followed by our Palliative Care team. Others need surgeries that we are unable to provide. Of the several thousand people waiting in line this first week of screening, 355 were given appointments to be seen by the surgeons. Every person we have to turn away is gut-wrenching. The screening team, along with the entire Africa Mercy community, reminds each other of the lives we have seen changed from the surgeries we are able to provide. The joy we see on the faces of those we are able to serve make it all worthwhile.
During the first field service in Madagascar, I served as the Crew Nurse in the Crew Clinic, sharing the same hallway as the hospital. It was a wonderful opportunity to serve and get to know the approximate 400 crew onboard, but my heart longed to work with the patients I saw daily walking the halls, experiencing the miraculous surgeries done by the surgeons who volunteer their time here.
Thanks to Emory University’s Long Distance Learning Program, and a generous donor who provided enough bandwidth so we could download video on the ship, I was able to begin their Wound Care Program in January 2015. In June when the ship left Madagascar for its two month shipyard period, I headed to Atlanta to do Emory’s Wound Care “Bridge Week.” I am so grateful that the staff at Emory designed a program that made it possible for me to fulfill my second dream – becoming a wound care nurse. Less than a week before we had to return to the ship, I took and passed my certification exam. I became a CWCN!
During our second field service in Madagascar, I transferred to the outpatient clinic and I love it. It’s the best nursing job I’ve ever had! After all this time, I feel as if I’ve found my place in nursing. Our first surgeries in Benin begin in September and the outpatient clinic will open soon after. Benin is a new beginning – who will we see, what will we see that’s never been seen before, what patients will we come to love, what will cause us struggles, what will bring us joy, what miracles will we see? For now they are only questions, but the entire Africa Mercy crew works with anticipation for the answers soon to come.
For more information about Mercy Ships please go to www.mercyships.org.