Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gloire and the Plastics Girls

We’re now on the 4th week of surgery here on the Africa Mercy. Surgeons, nurses and patients have come and gone, and it finally feels like there's at least a little bit of a routine. 

Each nurse is assigned a ward where he or she will work for the entire time they’re here. I am assigned to A Ward, which is where all the general surgery patients (hernia repairs, lipoma excisions, goiters etc) are, as well as all the overflow patients from the other units (this is all dependent on what surgeons are on board at any given time – sometimes A Ward becomes Maxillofacial when there are no general surgeons here).  B Ward is Plastics (for a few more weeks, then becomes ortho, then womens health), and D Ward is “Max Fax” (Maxillofacial).

The wonderful part of being here from the start of the field of service is that, because it takes days and weeks of surgery for the wards to fill up, I spent the first 2 weeks working in other wards, and have been able to see all the different kinds of surgeries. I’ve gotten to take care of babies who had cleft lip/palette repairs (and are ADORABLE), like Daniel

 (seriously, those eyes?!? and that heart shaped nasal bolster?!?)

men and women who have had large facial tumors removed, like Ebeneezer,

(before surgery)

(post op from his tumor removal)

(at the HOPE center, after being discharged, with Tori Hobson)

and children and adults who have had contracture repairs and skin grafts from burn wounds, like Sahara.

(Sahara was burned in a house fire when she was a little girl. Both her parents died in the fire, and she has been adopted by her aunt.  She does not know that her aunt is not her real mother, and that her parents were killed.)

 (Sahara, Graci and Jemina are some of our resident plastics girls - we love them!)

This last week I was finally on A Ward all week. Right now it’s about half general surgery patients (who are discharged 1-2 days after surgery, so we don't get to know them as well), and half plastics patients (who have been here 10-20 days, as their graft and donor sites need attentive care and rehabilitation).

I loved getting to know the patients and caregivers better last week - spending 6 days with them gave us a lot of time to play and laugh. 

One of those patients is Gloire, who I've now adopted as my Congolese little sister :).

Gloire ("glory" in english) is a 14 year old girl who had a release of contractures in both armpits 18 days ago.

I took care of her the day of surgery and the day after. I helped her sit up every time she needed to eat or take medication  (no automatic beds here!), turned her all the way around in bed so that she could watch the movie at movie time (she was on bedrest for 2 days), hung curtains from the ceiling with magnetic hooks around her bed so she could use the bedpan, and tried unsuccessfully to get a smile out of her. Not even my horrific french could get her to laugh.

Last week she was moved to A Ward, and I got to spend all week with her. There are 5 other girls who have had contractures released with skin grafts on Gloire’s side of the ward.  They and their moms all talk and laugh together, and take care of each other.

All of them except for Gloire.

She’s reserved and quiet, and it’s hard to get her to crack a smile.

At least I thought she was quiet.

Last Wednesday I took care of her, and made it my mission to get her to come out of her shell. I took her for a “marche” (walk) in the hospital corridor, and she pointed out photos of the nurses she knew as we walked back and forth.  We tried to communicate to each other with mixed success.

I pointed to one photo and then another to show her which crew are married, which she loved, and then she proceeded to “match make” couples in the photos, which was equally hilarious and awkward (some of them involved her pointing to me and then a photo of a married crew member).  I had to drag her back into the ward when we were finished. 

I've learned Gloire is a typical 14 year old. She's playful, difficult, moody, and loves to test boundaries. She tries to follow me into the hallway every time I leave.  One minute she's laughing and pulling my hair or doing something mischievous, the next she's ignoring me because I let one of the other girls paint my nails, or play a game with me. Then I have to sit with her for 15 minutes before I can finally get this smile out of her again...

Yesterday I was off, and I found myself wondering what Gloire was doing. I found myself wanting to go visit A ward just to see if she was ok, if she was smiling. 

Nursing on the Africa Mercy is a whole different world. While my job is to look after these patients physically, their emotional and spiritual health is just as important to everyone onboard. What a blessing it is to be free to practice nursing the way that I've always wanted to!

Please continue to pray for our patients.  Some of the girls (including Sahara and Graci) have developed infections in their skin grafts.  We are praying that they clear quickly, and are able to continue a smooth recovery. 

Love and joy from Congo, 


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Selection Day

On August 28, the Africa Mercy held the first and biggest selection day for the Repulic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) 10 month field of service.


Over 7,000 people came to be seen, and over 4,000 went through the selection process with hopes of qualifying for surgery.


The day was tumulous, with moments of joy and excitement contrasting starkly with the moments of sorrow and rejection, as some recieved news that they would finally have relief from their disfigurement or ailment, and others were disapointed to find that their problem is not one we are able to help with.

Our crew laughed and cried with Congolese people in both situations, all the while aware of the line that remained stretched for blocks outside the school where the screening was taking place.

What was expected to take 10 hours stretched to 13, and as it grew dark outside, the rooms inside of the school where the various stages of the screening process were taking place grew even darker.  Land Rovers were driven to strategic places among the corridors to shine light and enable work to continue. Crew brought out flashlights and headlamps to examine patients and fill out paperwork by.

When the last patient was seen in each area, there was a collective sigh of relief, joy and heartache.

Now, just a week later, I have gotten to know some of those patients who were just one among thousands.

See the girl in the foreground of this photo looking at the camera?  That's Graci.

She had surgery last week to release and repair a burn contracture on her foot. For a few days after surgery Graci was not allowed to get out of bed, as she has a skin graft donor site on her thigh, and wires in her toes to help the skin stretch and heal in the correct position.

She would cry as the other children got up to play games on the floor. There are 5 other girls recovering on the same side of the ward as she is, all at different stages in their recovery, and undergoing varying treatment.  Comparison is a constant battle.

Graci has to eat "Mana" every day - a nutritional supplement that comes in a packet and tastes like peanut butter. She cries every time she sees that packet coming her way - you'd think we were bringing a needle over! A few days ago we decided to try to make the Mana more palatable for all these kids in the plastics ward, and I spent an hour running up and down to the kitchen, finding a blender and milk, and eventually came out with some Mana smoothies!  They were a hit!

Graci is just one of many who suffer from disfiguring and debilitaing burns, and will be helped by the surgery that the wonderful plastics team here has performed.  While there is joy and excitement to be able to recieve this surgery, the process is one that is painful and foreign to Graci and her mom.  Graci cannot leave the hospital deck for 10 days, so that her donor and graft sites can heal without exposure to infection. For those who are allowed to, every day they go up to Deck 7, to play and sit outside from 2:30-3:30.  All the patients who are able make the trek up 4 flights of stairs from Deck 3 (hospital) to Deck 7.

Thanks once again to all of you who have made this time possible, for me to be here and learn from surgeons, RNs, patients, and people from all around the world.  It truly is such a unique place to live, and mission to be a part of, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. 


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

It's a s[hip] life.

I've tried to get more frequent updates out through Instagram, but will use my blog as the occasional opportunity to reflect and share further, for those who are interested. 

Today is my 10th day living on board the M/V Africa Mercy. 

I flew LA-> Houston->Frankfurt->Gabon->Point-Noire. I was unexpectedly ungraded to Business Class on the flight from Frankfurt, while all the rest of my Mercy Ships compadres I had met in the Frankfurt airport were back in Economy.  I can’t say I was complaining, as it was by far the most comfortable flight of my life, even with the German man next to me raising his glass and grinning at me every time he enjoyed another rum and coke.  

The stop in Gabon was unexpected, for me at least. I thought we were landing in Congo, and was taking pictures from my window as we landed, all while formulating the intro to my blog post in my head.  Something about how I loved Congo from the moment I saw it - the red, green and yellow brightly painted roofs, the patches of forest interspersed between geometric fields.  Unfortunately, it was apparently Gabon I loved from the moment I saw it, and by the time we got to Congo it was quite foggy, so I didn’t get a good enough view from about to see how much I loved the aerial view.

But to be honest, I don’t know that I would have loved it.  Pointe-Noire is not all that appealing, visually – especially living in a port filled with fishermen, containers, and murky water (in which you often see dead fish, trash and the occasional jellyfish family). It has been overcast every day since we’ve been here, aside from a few hours this past Sunday when maybe a third of the sky was slightly blue. Rainy season starts in a few weeks, so I may never see a truly blue sky in Pointe-Noire.

Living on a ship is quite an adjustment. Changes to routine, personal space, organization, community and pretty much every other area of life has us all trying to get our bearings, but enjoying the process and opportunity for a fresh start.

I am so thankful to have 5 amazing cabinmates - 1 from Norway, 3 from Canada, and one other American. We get along so well that in the first 3 days we had 3 noise complaints. Whoops. 

(Me, Solveig, Kathy, Heather B, Heather M, Becky)

Here's our 6-berth cabin:

My cabinmates are very excited about cleaning, or so I found out one afternoon when I can back to find this:

Here are some random thoughts and snippits after living 10 days of ship life:
  1.  Room temperature, boxed German milk isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
  2. My zebra print Snuggie is no match for the sub-zero air-con pumping thru my cabin (although my Canadian bunkmates have no problem with it).
  3. It’s easier than I thought to take a 2 minute shower (we’ve got water restrictions, because they treat all the water on board), especially with the air-conditioning encouraging you to make those moments between water use as quick as possible
  4. I’ve been hearing rumors about “Mercy Hips,” which crew are said to suffer from while serving on the m/v Africa Mercy. They attribute this to the incredibly low priced Starbucks cafĂ© located on board (think $1 lattes – the CEO of Starkbucks is on Mercy Ships board), the candy bars sold in the Ship Shop, and every meal being an all-you-can-eat buffet. We’ll see how my hips fare.
  5. Living with 3 Canadians is already making me want to say “aye,” “beg” instead of “bag,” and  “soorry” instead of  “sorry.”
  6. Those sailing lessons I took when I was 10 did not stick. I keep forgetting which side is port and which is starboard.  Sorry Mom!
  7.  Once again, I really wish the US was better at teaching foreign language. Speaking French would really come in handy when walking into town and trying to get directions to a market, and the only french that pops into your head is from a famously inappropriate Christian Aguilera song. My children WILL be bilingual - at the very least.
  8. Having a 2 inch ledge coming off the floor under every doorway is a really bad idea. I stubbed my toes the first day here and I plan on never doing it again. Also I’m hoping my toenail remains intact.

All in all I am really enjoying this time on the Africa Mercy, getting to know it's crew, it's lifestyle, and it's history. I am thankful to be a part of it's crew, whose present mission is to serve the Congolese people by bringing healing to their bodies and showing them the power of gospel with words and actions. My first shift on the ward is tomorrow morning, and I am excited to begin caring for and learning from them!