Thursday, 29 August 2013

My One

We moved out, under the cover of darkness in landrovers, bound for a school prepared and ready for thousands of people to walk through in search of fulfilled hopes and finally healing.
The people came. About 7000 of them, lining up along the road in the place we had prepared. The government closed off roads and the people waited.

As we opened the gates, we let the patients trickle in through a filtering system. The pre-screeners ask the patient why they have come and they decide, based upon what Mercy Ships surgeons can do, whether we can help them or not. It is not possible to describe how it feels to tell someone that their last hope of a normal life and healing, we cannot give them.
The 'no' patients are walked all the way to the back gate via the prayer station, always so reluctant to step outside the compound where they hoped so desperately to be helped. The 'yes' patients are escorted to registration and from there to History where I was standing, radio plugged in my ear to listen to all that was going on, answering questions of the nurses, sorting out problems and directing patient traffic.
My co-leader and I had an amazing team of nurses who worked so tirelessly throughout the day. But within the first hour of screening I helped out a nurse with the heartbreaking task of telling a young girl of about 12 years that the surgeons on our ship couldn't help her. She immediately burst into tears. My heart had already sunk to the depths of my chest when I had looked at her through my medical eyes. Her abdomen was massively swollen, she was thin and drawn, her skin colour not quite right. It was a stomach tumour the doctor had told them, but he would not help because they had no money to pay him. All because she lives in a world of very expensive or nonexistent medical care this one precious child might just miss out on life, if not for a miracle. So seeing her burst into tears just about dissolved me. The mother looked at me, explaining again, but we have no money and she needs help and now you are here. I looked her in the eye, hoping the compassion in my heart was written across my face, I'm sorry. Even as I write this tears stream down my face for this one child who needed help that we, as Mercy Ships, couldn't give. We can help so many, and I rejoice in that but who is here for this one? Who is here for the hundreds of others like my friend Ali met, facing this moment over and over again in the pre-screening line.
In moments like this it is not my strength that I stand on, for I do not have the strength to stand telling another that his hopes for us to bring healing are dashed.
In the midst of our busy rooms, I stood in the hallway, next to a line of patients and caregivers stretching to the end of the building and far behind me and around the corner. The three rooms I am running are full. One has 60 people waiting, the other two are full of nurses, translators (our day crew), patients and caregivers. I look towards the waiting area and see one little boy out of line. I can stare straight through his bowed legs. Although he is only small the legs are remarkably bowed, creating a little circle that comes together at his shoes.
I turn around with my back to the doorway and am face to face with a woman whose whole jaw is one great tumour, jagged teeth pointing towards the sky. After working on the ship in the maxillofacial ward for the last 18 months this sight is certainly not unfamiliar. I greet the woman and ask her name. It is Natasha and I tell her mine. In the next ten months she will be my patient on the ward and I will have the pleasure of knowing her.
I look down the line and see cleft lips on small babies, little children and even older adults. So many cleft lips in one day I have never seen.
It is this reason, bowed legs, mandible tumours, cleft lips and so many more that make my heart happy and full. Each of these patients will become a part of our lives. I say 'our' lives because the nursing and hospital team is really one big family. We share with abundant joy each other’s triumphs and pray with all our might for every patient.

At 4pm we had been working for 10 hours and after questioning one patient, they told us they’d been waiting outside the gate since 7am. They were tired too. I greeted one lady who had an orthopaedics abnormality and her little girl, who walked with windswept knees down the hall in her striped stockings with no shoes. The woman smiled at me, replying in French, we are tired. Yes I understood.

2pm they had closed the line off outside the compound to new people joining it, but it still held about 1,500 people. Hours later they were still coming through. Knowing we only had limited daylight left we switched to just taking patient details and giving them a screening card for a select date for their specialty. And still the patients kept coming. The whole hallway was filled with people, each holding their precious coloured mercy ships paperwork, a symbol of hope.
It really was ordered chaos but there was never a time out of order or dangerous, despite the number of people in one place. They waited, eager to move when they were called but otherwise willing to wait patiently, like no people in the western countries.
Darkness came and we kept giving out cards, seeing with the light of head-lamps, barely able to see the reason for the patient coming. They will return soon. Actually they already have. There are 60 max fax patients sitting on the dock waiting to be screened.

The numbers are overwhelming. 4236 people came through those gates and this was our first screening day. There will be more in other cities upcountry. More people will come looking for help. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at that thought, not only for the sheer exhaustion of screening day but because there are so many.
They say you have to start with one, because every single one counts.
Natasha will be my one.

(more photos will come in the next weeks)

Saturday, 24 August 2013


During the sail I read a book, along with a group of nurses, called Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick. The book was about daring to ask God for the impossible. I don’t know what you believe or what you may have believed as you were growing up and developing your view of the world, but this concept of asking God for impossible things wasn’t far from what I’d been taught and believe myself. As I sit and think about it, I can think of countless situations over my lifetime where the impossible happened. (If you’d like to know, feel free to email me!)

As I read the book I was challenged for the number of seemingly impossible things that I could think of to pray for friends, but nothing for myself. The idea is to pray not for what we want, but for what we believe God wants for us. Something involving His vision for our lives, based on His promises for us. The author, Steven, writes about the day his life was ruined when he found the vision for his life while reading a book. His dream seemed like an impossible one, but he knew that God had given it to him. He has spent the following years, fighting for it and praying for the sun to stand still to see it become a reality.

As the ship sailed into Pointe Noire, Congo, Don Stephens, the founder of Mercy Ships was standing on the dock with his wife, Deyon, watching the ship sail in. More than 35 years ago Don was given this vision for a hospital ship to be sailing around giving free surgical care to those who need it most and to do it in the name of Jesus, loving and serving the people as Jesus did. He spoke to us, the Africa Mercy crew, on Thursday night about the journey of this impossible dream becoming a reality. I have read it before in his book, Ships of Mercy, but after the freshness of Steven Furtick’s book in my mind, I have thought about how amazing it really is. Can you imagine, dreaming up something as crazy as a huge hospital ship sailing around Western Africa, giving free surgical care to people? And then how does one go about making that happen? He had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to even begin shopping for a ship, let alone all the costs to follow the initial one. But he knew that God had clearly spoken to him and he pushed to see this impossible dream become a reality. It would have truly brought me to my knees to see the M/V Africa Mercy sailing out of the haze into the harbour of Pointe Noire, seeing the vision that once seemed so impossible was now so real and tangible.

While reading the book Sun Stand Still I had to sit and actually think, have I dreamed up dreams that are impossible to achieve without God? I barely know where my life is headed, except that I want to follow wherever it is that God leads me. So if you asked me if I have a vision for my life, I’d give you a pretty vague answer, but I know more than anything that I want to stay exactly where God wants to me to be, because that is the place that I feel fulfilled.  With God's inspiration I have begun to dream impossible dreams. Do you have any?

This coming week is our patient selection day or screening day as we have previously called it. (Read about other screening days here, here and here.) It is a day full of impossible dreams becoming a reality for those we can treat. For the third outreach I will be Team Leader at the History Station where I, along with my co-leader, will have 18 nurses and 18 day crew to translate to lead as we take the selected patient’s observations and small medical history before they move on to see the specialty surgeon. It is a huge day full of so much emotion and probably my favourite day of the whole outreach as we get to meet the patients that we will see, treat and love over the coming 10 months. My heart will be filled and emptied all on the same day as I see the incredible need in the country but also the hope and impossible dreams that we can be a part of seeing become a reality.

Will you join me in praying for this day? Pray for those who need impossible dreams of healing to see them fulfilled.

Me and my co-leader for this year's screening. Photo taken screening Togo 2012

Saturday, 10 August 2013

To know it's heart

Today I wondered how it felt for the local people of Pointe Noire, Congo, as the M/V Africa Mercy put down its gangway and let loose 310 crew members who have just spent the last 14 days at sea. We will be docked here for the next 10 months and today was the first day of exploring this new city that, in the next few months, will become comfortable under our feet.
We sailed into the port of Pointe Noire yesterday morning, around 10am and were met by a large party of people on the dock. There was a tent, the colours of the Congo flag, stretching halfway down the dock and entertaining tables set up and people waving us in. Unlike the other countries we have been to in the last years, this time, the welcome party was thrown by the government officials and within minutes of us mooring our lines and letting down our gangway, the president of Congo arrived. After the official proceedings, he came on board for a quick tour with his entourage.

The President arrives

This country is so excited to have us that they are paying our fuel costs for the entire 10 months that we are here. Now, I hardly understand or know myself how much this ship costs to run, but I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that the fuel alone costs about $200 per hour! This country wants us here so badly that they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for us to be here.

Today was the first time to walk around and explore and see what it is that the Mercy Ships Advance Team have been talking about. I sat with a group of friends this morning, discussing the history of Congo’s politics and wondering how they have managed, unlike so many other African nations, to stay on top of issues that sink other nations, even after a year of civil war (1997). We don’t know what it is but today we saw a difference. The main streets are paved, the traffic system works (one set of working traffic lights and we crossed the road when the man turned from red to green! I’ve never seen that before), the taxis and taxi vans are all painted a certain colour to distinguish them from other vehicles and there are many shops, restaurants, supermarkets, ice-creameries and patisseries, leaving nothing wanting for a price if you are willing to pay.

We walked and we walked and we walked, further and further from the port and into the city. The more roundabouts we passed, the more roads seem to come off the roundabout as options to walk and explore. Finally we took a left turn and eventually found ourselves in a quiet, sandy street. We continued wandering, thinking that eventually someone local was going to think this group of 5 white foreigners are completely lost. We certainly weren’t lost, just exploring. I wanted to see what kind of people made up this city, for so far we had only walked past shop fronts and concrete buildings, telling me nothing about the heart of the city at all. The heart of the city to me are its’ people. So where were they living?
Soon enough a man called to us and then walked through the sandy street to us. Sadly to say, our French language skills are poorly lacking (something to work on) but we managed to communicate enough and he introduced himself to us and we to him. He was happy to meet us, very welcoming and friendly. He showed us his hardware ‘store’ (different from the picture in your mind, I am certain to say, unless you have been here) and introduced us to his friends (including one who spoke English). Immediately, through his generous heart, he handed us some packaged sweet and salty rice snacks and his English speaking friend told us, he knew Mercy Ships had arrived yesterday and that he saw an advertisement on the TV yesterday. They were very happy that we were here and we, more than happy to be here and tickled at this little gathering. We were also excited to hear that word had gotten out and in this back road in a little shop, they already knew who Mercy Ships was.
After a little chat, we asked for directions to the beach and without hesitation the man we first met said he would show us. We bid farewell and enchantè to his friends and walked with our new friend to the main road before he stopped and pointed out the direction for us to walk. This is a perfect example of what it is what makes my heart sing. This is the heart of the African nations that I love.

We stood in a supermarket today, waiting for a friend and while we were standing there a very familiar song began playing over the radio and a smile spread from one ear to the other. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard, sung and danced to ‘Chop My Money’ over the last 2 ½ years but today it fit in just perfectly. I am in a country I have never been to, a place that is unfamiliar in location, dirty, sandy streets that I have never walked, but I already know the song on it’s radio and that it’s people are welcoming and friendly. I can’t wait to know it’s heart.

dirty feet are back!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Sail with a Twist

This sail to Congo has definitely been different from all other sails that I have been on. Firstly, we began our sail only a couple of days after I arrived back on board in Tenerife, Canary Islands, after being away for 5 ½ weeks. I had left the ship in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, and said goodbye some of my dearest friends, knowing I would be coming back to a ship life without them. I knew I would still have friends on board, just different ones. It takes some adjusting, finding a new space for yourself, but setting sail for 13 days really tends to help you bond with those you hang out with.

Last day on solid land

Enjoying the tastes of Spain

Goodbye Tenerife!

Hello sailing buddies!

During this sail I have completed Basic Life Support (BLS), Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) and Paediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS). Needless to say, most days I have had my nose in a book studying or sitting in a ‘classroom’ (a rocking and a rolling international lounge) learning and practicing new skills. My brain has been stretched (a very nice feeling) and I have enjoyed acquiring some very useful knowledge. All the while, the ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see and further, has continued churning beneath us and rocking us side to side, but the day goes on. There are things to be done, books to be read, jobs to do and at the end of the day, we find time for facing the wind head-on by standing on the bow, searching for dolphins and whales, counting flying fish and singing praise songs as the sun sets on the water. It is magical.

yep, they're whales!

the whales made us all jump out of our hammocks to watch

One night while hanging out with two friends, we were supposed to be studying but ended up chatting and somehow by the end of the conversation, we’d decided to begin a 10 day Detox diet. So, what can you eat? Fruits, vegetables, nuts and drink water. That’s it. That’s all we can have in our already limited supply on board. We decided we’d better begin soon before all the fresh produce on the ship that was stocked up in Tenerife ran out. So far, we have enjoyed a large variety of fruits, plenty of salad, plain vegetables... Well actually that’s not true. We have eaten those things, but perhaps I wouldn’t use the word enjoyed. When I looked at the dinner options tonight and I saw Chicken Cordon Bleu (chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella and bacon and crumbed) and then back at my plate, scattered with green beans and the same salad that I’ve eaten for the last 7 days, my heart sunk. Each day I’m hoping that the fresh produce will have run out, enough for us to call it quits early. So far, no luck. It is truly amazing how much of my satisfaction in life comes from eating good food!!! At the end of my salad meal, I rack my brain, trying to think of what I could find to eat, within my limitations that could satisfy me. Nothing. But somehow the three of us have found the willpower to do this and not give up and I’m proud of that effort!

The most exciting part of the sail to Congo has definitely been sailing over zero degrees latitude & zero degrees longitude! This makes me a Royal Diamond Shellback! And to add excitement and commemorate the event, I, along with two friends, decided to get a piercing so that we will never forget. Haha and we will never forget! After spending an hour or so in a friend’s cabin, time spent with ice on ears and noses (not mine Mum), IV needles piercing holes and earrings and nose studs being pushed through, the group of us had bonded forever!

Jay with his victims. (I had the smoothest piercing- lucky me)

After the piercing party, we went up to deck 7 as the captain spoke through the overhead speakers that we were seconds away from crossing 0.00, 0.00. We had photos taken with nothing but darkness in the background. Nothing to see, but the memory of knowing where we had sailed and three of us have holes to prove it!

Photo by Josh Callow

Art by Josh Callow

And we sail onwards. Congo is only days away and so much more adventure awaits.


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