Monday, 21 September 2015

Questions to God

Sometimes I ask God questions out loud. Yesterday the question was quite simple. We were standing in the hospital laundry room, “God, where is the green bonnet?” We needed this bonnet so badly, for the patient who owned it was missing it and hiding her face and her heart from life.

The day before when I had come into work, she was lying in bed, a blue towel covering the whole right side of her face, her body buried in a pile of blankets. Her eyes were closed.  The nurse told me she had refused to eat lunch. She was also requiring high dose painkillers for the surgery that she’d just had the day before. She had so far been unable to move from her bed and walk to the toilet since the pain she felt from the wound on her thigh. She was stubborn about not moving.
Her name means Help in Malagasy and as she lay in her bed, face covered, still as a statue, my heart broke for her. The situation is all too familiar to me. The facial flesh eating disease, noma, was the one who ate away her face. Like so many other patients I have cared for and fallen in love with in the past, she too needs patient, constant, unconditional love. She has clearly been rejected and shamed in her community. Only God knows the awful things that may have been whispered about her as she went about her daily life, her face hidden in shame.
My years of nursing in this place has made me soft and cry more than I ever thought I would but also one of the toughest, unafraid to push the patients to return to a normal rhythm of life despite being in a hospital. Yesterday I pushed her gently and was actually rewarded with an unexpected smile!

Our mission now, if we should choose to accept it, is to sing love over her until it seeps into the very depths of her soul. She has a long road ahead, but being constantly bathed in God’s beauty and goodness is sure to change her.

When I look at my own life, sometimes I shield my face from others. Well actually to be honest, living in such a close community like the ship makes me shield my face often, from those who care, but aren’t the ones that I would choose to share the intricate details of my life with. I think many of us cover our face and stubbornly lay waiting for God to heal our hearts or make our daily life better. Sometimes when your heart is broken and laying on the floor, all you can do is lay in God’s arms, but I think that’s when we need to ask Him for strength to face the new day and to draw off his strength. In that moment we feel carried on his shoulders and He is made strong in our weakness.

There is a lot of sadness in the world at the moment. You don’t need to look very far to see the massive need of the Syrian refugees, the wars that still rage, natural disasters, the friend who is struggling, the patient lying in her hospital bed struggling to accept the road ahead of her, my neighbour who just lost his battle with cancer or the loss of friends who were killed in a car accident over the weekend.

I have asked God all sorts of questions lately, not just about finding patient’s bonnets, but about the plan that he has for us. He says He has plans to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future. (Jer 29:11) But what about all those who are suffering harm? The next verses in Jeremiah carry on by saying that when we call upon Him and come and pray or talk to Him, He will listen and when we seek Him with all our hearts, we will find him. In my experience, in the moment we call out to God and find Him, the pain doesn’t just vanish, but as we learn to lean into Him and let Him carry us, He’ll also carry our pain.

As I was reading the news articles about the Syrian refugees and just feeling so discouraged for them, I was asking God, “How do they know that you are a good God when all they have known is war for the past four years? How do they know that you love them?” I didn’t hear an immediate answer, but the next day as I read more articles, they were about people in Europe standing by the border crossings with banners saying Welcome, passing out free food for those walking on the highway from Hungary to Austria, new shoes provided for those who’d walked and walked and families who’d welcomed strangers into their villages, God whispered to me that he showed these people he loved them through the people who reached out and showed kindness and love. It was a strong reminder to me of the different ways that God shows His love and also to remember to listen to God’s spirit whispering to me to be the one who hands out love in the form of a batch of cookies for a friend who needs encouragement, a bunch of flowers to a family member who has lost a loved one, an extra moment to sit with the patient who is struggling to interact and receive love.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Let the outreach begin

I asked if I could hold him. She nodded her head and handed over her one and a half year old baby boy to my open arms. His eyes were open but he did not see or focus on my face. His hands were in continual rhythmic motion. His mouth made baby sounds and noises. His soft skin and chubby body filled my lap. He smelt strongly of urine and I wondered if my lap was getting wet from his damp shorts, but I didn’t care. This little precious one was in my arms.
We were talking with his mama about the surgery that he’d had months ago in the previous Mada outreach. She was ‘very satisfied’ with his scar as it was hid amongst his curly black hair. She said he was ‘more accepted’ in society now, but she was saving up finances for a surgery to ‘fix him’ because he wasn’t walking yet and wasn’t doing things other children his age were doing. I think a little piece broke off my heart when I heard that. It was a comment that I have heard so many times in different countries throughout Africa. Yet again, I explained to his mama that her precious little boy could not be ‘fixed’ with a surgery. It was just the way he was and that in my country we also have boys and girls the same as hers, who cannot be ‘fixed’ with a surgery. The most important thing that she could do for him was be a good, loving mama and I already knew she was because I had seen her care for him in our hospital with my own eyes. My heart yearns for her, knowing the hard road she will continue to walk in a country without government help or even support groups for disabled children.


Little girl J was brought to the chair next to me. She sat down timidly, keeping her head down, feet swinging because they didn’t touch the ground. Her grandmother sat down on the chair beside her, rubbing her rough hands together nervously. Her feet were bare and it was clear to me that she was a woman who knew how to work extremely hard. The translator told me that they were from a village far away. We introduced ourselves and we asked them a few questions.
Little J has a tumour growing from the right side of her face. It had been growing for one year and had already split the skin on the surface, causing fluid to occasionally leak out and run down her neck. At 11 years old, J is small with no body fat to speak of. Despite her young age she sat so still and bravely while I stuck a needle in her arm so that she could have a scan. Even when the doctor looked at her and poked around the tumour, she was so brave. My background knowledge tells me that the results we’ll get back from the tests will tell us that she is not a candidate for surgery on the ship, but my heart screams for the opposite.


At the end of the day in the screening tent I turned around and saw a large stack of envelopes sitting on the table. It looked like fan mail. I asked Jas what it was. She told me it was the pile of photos and referrals that the day crew at the patient assembly site in town brought back to the ship EACH DAY. There would have been more than 60 photos of all areas of people’s bodies that had a problem or pain, that they would like a doctor to see and remove the lump or cure the pain. We looked through each photo and put them in piles of problems we could potentially help and those we couldn’t. There were some photos that were really heartbreaking. Among them, a baby with hydrocephalus that needs a shunt placed that we cannot do and neither can any other hospital in this country and a young girl with terrible scoliosis who needs a spinal fusion which we cannot offer. The pile of photos went on and on; a pile of papers that cried out ‘Help us!’


We arrived in Madagascar on Sunday 30th August after further unforeseen delays at sea. My last post was about waiting and I had a bit of a laugh because I got further practice less than 24 hours after it was written, when I thought we were finally on our way!

The M/V Africa Mercy in port, Tamatave.

Since we’d been so delayed, we hit the ground running and had cleaned and set up the whole hospital in 5 days, with many thanks to our alumni Malagasy day crew and 60 brand new nurses.

The last couple of days I have spent with the screening team or doing maxillofacial evaluations. I have seen patients waiting for surgery and patients who have had surgeries. I have seen the faces of those who are daring to hope that this is the chance they have been dreaming of or prayed for and I have seen the smiling faces of those who have had successful surgeries and despite some still facing challenges say that they are now accepted in their community and are satisfied with their surgeries. Many of them still do not look ‘normal’ and require further surgery for improvement, yet they are not complaining. I am just amazed at these Malagasy people who continue to flaw me with their selflessness.

Mercy Ships hospital team 2015 Mada2

The first surgeries of the Mada2 outreach began yesterday. The patients were outnumbered by the nursing staff as a handful of the new nurses got to work their first shifts in a place that many of them have dreamed about coming to. I love watching the new nurses in their new environment which is so normal and comfortable for me (it should be after 5 years!) I love watching them fall in love with the people and patients in the ward, knowing that they will never be the same after this experience. Mercy Ships is a place that you just can’t walk away from and be the same person. Despite the fact that this is now my 7th outreach with Mercy Ships, working and living here continues to change me, stretch me and mold me into a better person. So, I say, let the outreach begin!


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