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.
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.”
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.”
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.”