Volunteering with Mercy Ships

Volunteering with Mercy Ships

Prior to finding out about Mercy Ships, Christel A. Echu, RN, admits that if you asked her if she wanted to volunteer for any organization and not get paid, she would have said, “No.”

But when a friend who was an authority in the church she attended in Cameroon, Africa, she changed her mind. “I decided to volunteer with Mercy Ships because I was interested in being a part of the great work they were doing for the people of my country, and I wanted to help in any way that I could,” Echu says.

Mercy Ships Bring Hope and Healing

Mercy Ships is a non-profit Christian organization, she says, that sails across West and Central Africa with the mission and vision to provide hope and healing to patients who are poor and/or forgotten in countries there.

When Echu began volunteering with Mercy Ships, she had just graduated from nursing school. First, she worked as a volunteer translator when the ship, the Africa Mercy, was docked in the port of Cameron. She volunteered as a translator for 10 months.

Mercy Ships bring hope and healing

Mercy Ships bring hope and healing

By then, Echo says, she was hooked. She ended up continuing to volunteer for another two years. “I transitioned from that [working as a translator] to working as a volunteer screening nurse until the end of my commitment,” she says. “Screening nurses, we see all the patients before they are seen by the rest of the hospital. We screen, assess, and ensure patients are healthy enough for surgery.”

She says that they pre-screened more than 6,000 patients in a day when they were in Guinea Conakry. “That was the longest shift I have ever had,” she says.

One of the aspects that Echu loved about Mercy Ships is that she got to work with nurses from all over the world: including the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, the United States, and others.

“I loved working with patients and with my team. We also worked alongside our wonderful translators, which was a blessing because they helped to facilitate communication between the patients and nurses,” she recalls. “I think I enjoyed the fact that we could learn from each other to provide the best care to the patients we served. I enjoyed seeing the joy the patients felt whenever we announced to them that they were getting surgery. “The dance of joy” was a thing in the screening tent and I enjoyed seeing the patients come back to show us their “new self” without the tumor or the deformity. Moments like that, reminded me why I decided to volunteer in the first place and kept me going on difficult days.”

Biggest Challenges

There were tough days. Echu says that one of her biggest challenges while working with Mercy Ships was being away from her family, home, and community. But another difficult part was when she had to say “No” to people they couldn’t help.

“This is a part of my job that we don`t talk much about. The ship has specific surgeries they do when they sail in a nation. However, there are patients who present with conditions that are not within Mercy Ships scope of practice and that`s when we get to do ‘no’ conversations. Screening nurses initiate that conversation before the chaplaincy team on the ship takes over,” she says. “That was the most challenging thing about my job—having those ‘no’ conversations was never an easy thing to do. Most of the patients we see come with the hope of being helped, but when we have to say no to them, it almost feels like that hope crumbles before their very eyes.”

Greatest Reward

She also, though, had many rewards—the greatest of which was forming relationships with the ship’s community.  “The relationships I built during that time, [ones] that become an integral part of my life. The community is really special. Now, I have friends all over the world,” says Echu, who now lives in Minnesota. “I do not have family here in the United States, but I know friends with whom I worked with on the ship, [and they] are my family while I am here.”

Echu says she will never forget “the amazing patients I got to work with and their families and the joy they always had on their faces even without having much.”

If you’re a nurse thinking about volunteering with Mercy Ships, she says, “Do it! Go and see for yourself. Have an open mind and be ready to learn and receive as well,” she says. “Most volunteers go on the ship with the mindset of giving and serving which is good, but also go with the mindset of receiving. Receiving could be anything—like being welcome in the house of a local, or being encouraged by a patient who doesn`t have much, but they still have a big smile on their faces. It’s an experience that would change your life completely for good.”

Mercy Ships: Volunteering to Treat the Forgotten Poor

Mercy Ships: Volunteering to Treat the Forgotten Poor

When nurses think about volunteering, they may imagine doing so somewhere in their own backyard. While all type of volunteering to help others is important and valuable, there are many different types—some may even take you across the world. Meggin Tallman RN, BSN, now a Pediatric Critical Care Nurse at Children’s Hospital of Alabama, has volunteered a number of times with Mercy Ships. She wants to spread the word about this amazing organization, so she answered our questions.

What is Mercy Ships?

Mercy Ships volunteer Nurse Meggin Tallman plays the Ukelele with a patient onboard the Africa Mercy.

Mercy Ships is an international faith-based organization bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. As many as 5 billion people lack access to safe, affordable surgical and anesthesia services worldwide, and less than 6% of all operations are delivered to the world’s poorest countries. Marginalized populations continue to suffer due to a lack of trained health care providers, inadequate infrastructure, and disproportionate out-of-pocket healthcare costs.

Mercy Ships programs offer holistic support to developing nations striving to make health care accessible for all. Since 1978, Mercy Ships has delivered services to more than 2.56 million direct beneficiaries. Mercy Ships owns and operates the Africa Mercy which is the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship and is dedicated to the continent of Africa. Mercy Ships has an average of 1,000 volunteer crew, from up to 40 nations, serving onboard the Africa Mercy each year.

How did you get involved with Mercy Ships? Why did you decide to volunteer?

I had always had a dream to serve in developing countries upon completion of my nursing degree. I just really have a service heart, and I feel that I now have a set of skills that are desperately needed all over the world. If I am called to help and have the ability to, then how could I not volunteer?

As a new graduate, I got the opportunity to serve with the hospital I worked for, for a month in Zambia. Following that trip, I knew this was something I was uniquely called to do. When I got home, I really jumped into researching organizations doing medical missions on the continent of Africa, and when I discovered Mercy Ships, my mind was blown that they could do all the things that they do and help the amount of people they do. I instantly applied.

How long were you a volunteer? How did you get time off work?

My first service on the Africa Mercy was in Madagascar for just under four months and the second was just under three months in Cameroon. Those trips were somewhat easier to manage as I was a travel nurse at the time and could plan trips in between contracts. This last service with Mercy Ships was for six weeks in Guinea, and I, thankfully, have a boss who has a heart for missions as well. We were able to work together to help me take a leave of absence so I could fill a critical need the ship had for a pediatric ICU nurse.

What did you do with Mercy Ships? How many people did you help (estimate)?

On board the Africa Mercy I worked in D ward, which is the maxilla-facial ward, and my role was a pediatric ICU nurse. That being said, I treated kids and adults alike with ailments ranging from large tumors of the face and neck to cleft lips and palates to things as serious as neural tube defects.

In terms of how many people I specifically have helped, I don’t think that is calculable. Sure, I had my patients that I helped with medicines and wound dressings and those types things, but we also played games with patients and colored and sang songs. It’s just impossible to truly know the number of hearts and lives you affect both in the profession of nursing and just in life in general. That fact is even more so true on board the Africa Mercy, as it truly is a floating metal box of hope and healing…the patients aren’t the only people who leave the ship changed for the better.

What did you enjoy most about your experience?

Meggin Tallman, Ward Nurse (Paediatric ICU), with a patient on Deck 7.

I think if I had to choose one thing I liked most, it would be that we got to see the healing effects of love and compassion. All the interventions on the ship are surgical, so we have an instant gratification factor where the patient goes into the OR looking one way and comes out looking better. But many of these patients have endured terrible hurt and pain that surgery and medicine can’t fix. That’s where the games and songs and love come in. When you see that healing, you never forget it.

What were your greatest challenges?

I would say probably everyone who has ever served on board the Africa Mercy would say that the number one challenge is living in a tin box with 400 other people from 40 different nations. It is a challenging experience, but it grows on you.

What were your greatest rewards?

It is just such an honor to be able to be a part of the work of Mercy Ships and to play a small role in the life changes that take place on board the Africa Mercy.

What would you say to someone who was considering volunteering for Mercy Ships?

Do it! Not only will you be a part of changing people’s lives in a way that you could never have imagined, but you will come away changed too. I know it sounds crazy and scary and way too big for you–I’ve been there. But take the leap of faith; you won’t regret it.

Anything else?

My work overseas has made it evident that pursuing an advanced practice degree would make me that much more helpful in developing countries, which is why I am now earning my FNP at the University of North Alabama. Education is truly the greatest resource that you never have to worry about fitting in a duffle bag. I think that is an important thing to note when considering working in a low-resource setting.

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