Mercy Ships’ Cameroon turns nurse’s world upside down

Nursing is a privilege. I was recently reminded of this during my time volunteering with Mercy Ships in Central Africa, where I spent two months in Cameroon, living and working alongside some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met as a volunteer on the Africa Mercy.

The experience was rich with memories, but what will stick with me the most is the reminder of exactly why it is that I do what I do.

The Africa Mercy is the world’s largest private hospital ship and is staffed by 400 Mercy Ships volunteers from 40 nations. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ships.

When I became a nurse I was inspired by the notion of helping to heal others. I think this is true of many nurses. We are often helpers, givers and caretakers, motivated by a desire to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives.

We start with such passion and energy, ready to change the world. But somewhere along the way we lose that.

The excitement fades and we become burned out. All that’s left is the burden of long hours, overloaded assignments and insufficient compensation.

I’m guilty of this — becoming complacent in a culture of complaining. I didn’t realize how much I needed a change in perspective until I arrived in Cameroon and nursing as I knew it was completely turned upside down.

Patients needed more than physical repair

Nursing in Africa is different from anything I’ve ever experienced professionally. Working on the ward is a saturated experience unlike any other — extreme heat, close quarters and unfamiliar languages being spoken all around you. Life moves at a different pace on the floating hospital.

In comparison to the chaotic hustle of my ICU back home, things seemed calmer. There was still a steady stream of work to be done, but there was also this extra space created for sitting and talking to which I’m not accustomed.

At first I felt a frustration with this, as if I wasn’t doing anything because I wasn’t constantly and overwhelmingly busy. But with time I came to love the opportunity it presented to connect with patients in a way we simply don’t back home.

Mercy Ships volunteer Hannah Thyberg, BSN, BA, RN, with two of the floating hospital's patients.

Mercy Ships volunteer Hannah Thyberg, BSN, RN, with two of the floating hospital’s patients. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ships.

The truth is healing a person is about more than treating his or her physical symptoms. It’s about meeting a person in his or her place of need and vulnerability. We don’t always have the chance to do that when we are caught up in tasks and clinical medicine. We get so focused on the body that we forget the person within it.

As an organization, Mercy Ships understands the significance of caring for the whole person. A holistic approach is so critical for the types of cases they treat. I saw medical conditions that were both startling and humbling, conditions that simply don’t exist in the western world.

Most of these illnesses come with painful social realities. These people are mocked and mistreated, even by their closest friends and family. Many of these individuals are considered outcasts, at times being forcibly isolated to the outskirts of their communities.

Nurse Hannah Thyberg, BSN, BA, RN and a patient play Jenga together, while enjoying some sunshine and fresh air on Deck 7 of the Africa Mercy. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ships.

Nurse Hannah Thyberg, BSN, RN, and a patient play Jenga on Deck 7 of the Africa Mercy. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ships.

There are those who haven’t experienced kindness or affection in years. Witnessing the extreme isolation and suffering these people endure is poignant. But the beauty of Mercy Ships is the organization’s ability to enter into those painful places and restore hope.

This begins with the first steps the patients take onto the ship where they are looked directly in the eye and met with a warm smile. From beginning to end there is a purposeful intent to see and affirm their unique worth and importance.

Just kids who want to play

For pediatric patients, playtime as part of their recovery process is integral to restoring the normalcy of childhood. One of my most touching memories was watching two of my patients play soccer together. Paul and Roy both suffered burn injuries at a young age. These burns left them with significant disfigurements.

Both had shared the difficulties of being bullied by their peers and never being able to fit in or feel normal. But on the floating hospital, they were no longer seen as ugly outsiders. They were just kids playing with their friends.

I’ll never forget sitting with my patient, Rubain, after his surgery. Rubain suffered from gigantism, a rare disorder that causes abnormal growth. His leg had become so cumbersome that he was unable to walk. His leg was amputated to improve his quality of life and offer him the ability to walk again.

Rubain was still on bed rest recovering from surgery. I sat with him and played cat’s cradle. It was astounding to see how something as simple as a piece of yarn could bring so much laughter and enjoyment. This struck me over and over again, that in the midst of all the pain and difficulty there exists an unparalleled joy. The patients exude such happiness. They have hope and gratitude that surpasses anything I’ve ever encountered.

Incredible opportunities create life lessons

Being exposed to this provided me with invaluable perspective. It helped me appreciate the profundity of our profession. Medicine is life-saving and life-giving, and we have the incredible opportunity to be a part of that. We see people at their most vulnerable. We share their hardest and happiest moments.

From cradle to grave, nurses witness the full spectrum of life. …read more

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