Sunday, July 2, 2017

Howdy from Texas!

It's been a busy and exciting 2 months since I left the ship in April. After an amazing 2 weeks in Australia, full of rejuvenation and friendship, I returned back home to Florida. Thank you to all who attended one of my Mercy Ships talks or who I got to meet with in person! It's so encouraging to share what God is doing through our ship and I hope it was an uplifting and informative time for each of you. As I always say, I could not do this without your support, encouragement and love that keeps me going each day along this journey!!

Many of you may have noticed on Facebook or Instagram that I'm currently in East Texas at the Mercy Ships headquarters (called the ISC, or International Support Center) for training. Mercy Ships requires this training for any long term crew members (which is someone who volunteers to serve for more than 1 year). You may be surprised to know that this training is actually 0% to do with my 'job' on the ship :)

Group photo board. We have a total of about 50, including 10 children and 7 ISC staff.
The best way to describe OnBoarding is as a preparation course. Essentially, "How to serve Jesus well in an international community on a ship in a developing country that is not your own without punching someone or jumping overboard". Pretty simple, right?!

Here's the basic rundown:
Week 1: FMS (Foundations of Mercy Ships)- what do we believe, what's our purpose and how do we accomplish that.
Week 2: Faith Foundations- what do we believe about God, how does that effect our lives and how do we communicate with Him.
Week 3: Personal/Interpersonal Development- what is my personality and how does it influence the way I interact with others.
Week 4: Working With Those We Serve- cultural competence, worldview, transformational development
Week 5: Final Wrap-up- crowd management, computer training, final project presentations

Whew, I'm tired already! This is just the surface of the topics we discuss, and there are also many side benefits to this training including meeting a group of crew who I'll be serving with for 1-2 years, interacting with the staff here at the ISC that don't get to visit the ship very often, and having a few weeks of time set aside to focus on learning and growing before arriving to the craziness of the AFM. We've also had a great time introducing a few of the non-American members to the culture of Texas including a rodeo, BBQ, picnic with games and lots of trips to Walmart!

Part of our group at Mabank Rodeo
Honestly, I wasn't really looking forward to coming here. I'd heard mixed reviews about what things were like and being on the ship for nearly 2 years already, I kinda thought I knew it all (that was definitely not the case, I can assure you!). Maybe Lesson 1 was that my pride needed to be knocked down a bit because I've already learned so much and have really enjoyed the time so far! Yes, not every class is mind-blowing, but the overall topics, the people and this beautiful campus have been such a blessing. Texas has been treating us well with some cooler than usual temperatures and lots of rain making everything green! I'm taking in all the grass I can before I don't get to see any again for a year, haha!

Sunset over a field on campus.
2 weeks down, 2.5 weeks to go! Then a group of 30 or so will head to Dallas together and board a few long flights to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where the ship is in its annual maintenance period. And God willing, somewhere in the beginning of August we will sail to Cameroon! I probably won't have time to write again before we leave Texas but I will try to update again once I'm back on the ship in a few weeks.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Mercy Ships Bug

We have a joke on the ship about people that keep coming and going over and over again - You've caught the "Mercy Ships bug" - and I've got it bad! The only cure for this virus is to keep serving...This place, these people and the incredible mission of Mercy Ships have been deeply seeded in my heart forever and I cannot imagine doing anything else with this one life I've been given. The past two years have been full of so many indescribable experiences and I've learned more about myself, others and God than I would have ever imagined. 
I am overjoyed to announce that I will be continuing on the Africa Mercy for it's next 10 month field service in the country of Cameroon! Cameroon is a large country in Central Africa just two countries away from where we are currently in Benin. This is an exciting time to be serving as it's the ship's first ever visit to Cameroon. It will be exciting to represent the ship on it's first mission the Cameroonian people and to explore another country and culture on this awesome continent of Africa. I will continue to work in the hospital - again as the Orthopedic Team Leader and also as the Ward Team Leader during the months of plastic surgery. This will be a bit of a new role for me and an interesting challenge as we care for more plastics patients than ever before!

Cameroon here we come!!

As part of my new commitment to Mercy Ships, I will be attending a training program at the Mercy Ships headquarters in East Texas in June and July called OnBoarding. These 5 weeks will include classes about Mercy Ships, culture, interpersonal development and theology that are made to prepare crew members for long term service on the ship. As of now, my 10 month stints qualify me to be a "short term" crew member. After much prayer and consideration, I've felt like it was time to commit "long term" to this ministry. For now, that means 2 years starting in July but it's relatively open-ended time frame - or as we say here, TGS: till God says! Now, I will essentially be an employee of Mercy Ships, which brings both increased benefits and increased responsibilities. However, I still have to pay to volunteer ;)

Once again, I ask for your help to make this mission possible! I need your continued prayers more than ever. Every year on the ship brings new challenges- spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. While I still love this place and the work I get to be involved in, the huge needs we face in every country we visit becomes increasingly harder to bear. I must remind myself over and over again that "we cannot change the whole world but we can change the whole world for one person". Pray that as I face these challenges, I will seek the answers and comfort only God can provide and continue to trust Him in every circumstance. And begin praying for the patients we will meet in Cameroon; that God will bring the right patients at the right time and He will make himself known in that country as we share His love there.

I cannot say enough how your support has encouraged me and pushed me to continue on with this work. God has placed in me this passion; I am willing and able to continue serving but I cannot do it without your help! I will need to raise approximately $400 per month, plus travel expenses for the next 2 years. Below is the link to donate online and the address to send donations. If you are feeling called to donate, would you consider joining my monthly support team? I have committed for 2 years and I would be honored to have you join me in this commitment. It's easy to enter your information online and you can even set up automatic payments so you don't have to remember! Thank you for your continuing help to make this mission possible for years to come.

Online donations: 

Donation by mail:
(Send a check made out to Mercy Ships to this address with #4015 in subject line)
Mercy Ships
PO Box 1930
Lindale, TX 75771

Right now as I type this, I'm getting ready to leave the ship and the country of Benin. In order to have some time at home with friends and family before I am due in Texas in June, I am leaving a few weeks before the end of the field service. 'On the way' home, I'll be stopping in Australia to visit a friend from home who is living there for a year! I'll update more when I am back in the States, but for now, thank you so much for following along with my journey and continuing to support what Mercy Ships is doing in Africa!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


In Madagascar last year, we ate a lot of ice cream! Ice cream is one of my favorite foods; so when you can walk for 15 minutes and get a delicious scoop of creamy goodness for less than $1, it happens a lot. It's also a great excuse to spend an afternoon off the ship in the fresh air and sunshine after work or on a day off. I think I even made it a mission to try every ice cream shop in Tamatave while we were there, and I got pretty close (you'd be surprised how many places have ice cream!). Anyway, one of my favorite spots to stop was actually a pizza restaurant with a freezer out front. The ice cream wasn't that great and you could only get it in a cone (gross) but it was super cheap and would cool you off on a hot day. But the best part about this place was that you could order a scoop of ice cream with every flavor they had mixed together - it was called mélange, which means mixture in French. Ever since I heard that word the first time, I loved the sound of it and I always felt fancy ordering "the mélange" at this shop.

Related image
This is not THE exact Mélange ice cream, but it's close to what it looked like!

It's still one of my favorite French words to say and it seemed appropriate to describe the past few months in 'A Ward' as a Mélange. For the first 6 months of the year, I worked in 'B Ward' but in January, I moved to A Ward to fill a gap. The wards are basically all the same except for which type of surgical patients are housed there. A Ward is home to General surgery, however, the 'general' ward also gets a piece of whatever else needs space at the moment. This is something I had not experienced during my time in B Ward where the patients had been almost exclusively from plastic or orthopedic surgery. Here's a taste of what the mélange of A Ward is like:

When I first arrived in my new home, we had a combination of the last few plastic surgery patients (the ones who have complications, infections or multiple surgeries can stay up to 2 or 3 months) and a surgeon who specialized in goiters, or enlarged thyroid glands. The thyroid is a gland located in the front of your neck and is important in many hormone functions. For many reasons, including genetics, disease or poor nutrition, the thyroid can start to grow too much creating a large tumor-like mass that is often not working properly. Occasionally this causes hormone issues, but mostly it is a benign issue until it grows so large that it puts pressure on the airway and suffocates the patient. The physical deformity can also cause the patients to hide away and become outcasts, many times losing jobs or being abandoned by their family. While the surgery to correct the problem is not too difficult, damaging or removing parts of the gland can cause lifelong health problems if not done properly. Without the hormones from the thyroid gland, some patients will have to go on medication for the rest of their lives or followup with blood tests occasionally for monitoring. The doctors on the ship have developed a good technique for avoiding this problem but it is one of the risks of this type of surgery - the alternative, though, is to not perform these surgeries and risk many patients suffocating from this deformity.

Some of the A Ward nurses gather in the hall with the last few plastic surgery patients.

Several goiter ladies during screening.

Mama Adiza had the largest goiter we'd ever seen. She had difficulty eating, sleeping and even breathing.
She had a new lease on life after a very difficult surgery to remove her enlarged thyroid!
After a few weeks of thyroid patients, we had a gap between general surgeons so A ward was mostly full of overflow Maxillofacial patients. As I've mentioned previously, Maxfacs covers a variety of deformities all effecting the head or neck. Many of the surgeries are high risk and complicated, but those patients thankfully stayed on their own 'D Ward'. We got to care for things like cleft lips, removal of parotid glands (a gland in your cheek) or small facial growths. These things don't sound too complex but they definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. Even after being on the ship for 16 months and seeing all that I've experienced, I'm the first to admit that I don't know much about these types of surgery and I had a lot to learn!

Cleft lip patients recovering on A ward after their surgeries.
Next up we had a specialty brand new to me - and new to the majority of the ship since it hadn't been done here since 2013: Pediatric cataract surgery. The eye surgery program has been running on the ship since January. The majority of the patients are adults who get cataracts from old age or diseases like diabetes. A few of the patients are children who were born with cataracts or developed them at a young age from infection or genetic predisposition. Since most cataract surgery takes about 5 minutes and is done without anesthesia, the patients do not generally stay in the hospital. But for the children, it is necessary to use general anesthesia to perform the surgery without them moving. These kids would come in the night before their surgery to get prepped, then stay one night post-op to recover and monitor them, and get discharged the next day. I don't know anything about eye surgery so it was an interesting area to learn about. Thankfully, we got a little education before and there were always one or two of the ship's eye nurses around to help us. Even though it was very different to what I'm used to, it was so exciting to see the children come in with little to no vision and leave being able to see - some for the first time ever!

Anna and Dorcas are two sisters born with cataracts who received surgery on the ship. Patients with cataracts may seem like they are not looking straight at something but it's actually because they only have peripheral vision and have to turn their eyes to see around the cataract. After surgery, they must retrain their eye muscles to look straight and focus on objects.

Anna and Dorcas with their mother at the final eye checkup.

Finally, at the beginning of April, our general surgeon gap ended! Once again, A Ward is full of hernia and lipoma patients. While these surgeries are minor, the benefits are great. Us nurses try to have a lot of fun in the midst of the chaos - sometimes 6-10 patients coming and going each day! And it's such a privilege to see the relief on each patient's face as they realize this problem that has plagued them for so long has now been removed and they can go on with their lives again.
Hernia patients ready for discharge with the General Team Leader, Jane (left) and my friend Mary (right).
So that's the mélange of A Ward. It's been exciting to try some new things and mix up my experiences here on the ship. This time has made me appreciate how different we are...every person here - patient, crew, translator, caregiver- is in this place at the exact time God has prepared for them and in the exact area that fits their talents and skills. While life serving on the ship has its challenges and stretches me in many ways, it's wonderful to see how we all fit together in this crazy puzzle of Mercy Ships and how God holds it all together in a way that brings Him glory!

Friday, March 24, 2017

The A Team

I’ve written a lot about ship life and the countries we’ve visited, but I haven’t mentioned much about what happens before the ship arrives…
It all starts several years ahead of time when official representatives of Mercy Ships meet with the government of a country that has invited us to come. Mercy Ships never sends a ship to any country that has not given us an invitation. The goal is never to force ourselves into a place – we want to partner with each country we visit to determine together what services are beneficial and what ways we can help them the most. Once Mercy Ships determines that a country could be a potential site in the future, the two groups work together to develop a “Protocol”. This is basically an agreement of what Mercy Ships will provide and what the country will provide (things like a place in the port, visas for crew to enter, the ability to ship in food and supplies, and partnerships with hospitals and medical providers, etc.). This protects both our organization and the government while also ensuring that both sides are on the same page to prevent issues down the road. Once the Protocol is signed, it’s a high likelihood the ship will enter that country in the next 12-24 months. (Which means this is happening 1-2 countries beforehand!)

This is not the actual Protocol signing but imagine a very similar situation with our founder Don Stephens (left) and an official from the country.

About 6 months before the ship is scheduled to arrive in a new country (we call it “Country Next”), the real groundwork starts. A group of crew members from the ship go to that country to make preparations. We call them the Advance Team (or the A Team, because why not?!). This team is responsible for a bazillion things, all aiming for the final goal of having as much prepared as possible so that when the ship arrives in country, surgeries and training can start quickly. Their tasks cover a wide range of things from setting up registration for ~40 Mercy Ships vehicles, to ensuring the dock space is fit for our needs, to setting up local partners for medical training courses and hiring over 200 Day Crew (translators). Definitely no small task and this team are heroes for what they accomplish in just a few months’ time!

Advance Team-Cameroon 2017!!
Another important responsibility is letting the local people know that the ship is coming. Much of this is done by word of mouth! Africa, in general, has a very ‘community culture’. Everyone is a friend of a friend who knows this person or that person :) The word about free surgeries generally starts through churches and local NGOs that Mercy Ships has partnered with. In the past, posters, radio, television and text messaging campaigns have also been used. See my post about the Screening process here to see how the advance team is using local workers and technology to find a lot of potential patients. This will be increasingly used this year as Cameroon is several times the size of Benin (It’s about the size of California!) and it would be nearly impossible for one group to reach the whole population.

Enough from me. My friend KJ is on her 3rd advance team and has written a great blog that explains it very well and gives a breakdown of each team member’s role. Check it out here:

Would you consider praying for this group and the huge task they have ahead of them? God has worked miracles in Benin and we know He is preparing for many more in Cameroon! Our ship family was privileged to have the opportunity to commission this team before the first element left last week. It was a sacred time of prayer for blessings, safety and divine appointments in the next 5 months until the ship arrives in this next place God has called us to. They would be so grateful to know that they are being prayed over from all over the world!

Laying of hands and prayer over Advance team members - March 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Celebration of Sight

Did you know that Mercy Ships also has an eye program?
In January, "Mercy Vision" kicked off in Benin with a goal to provide several hundred free eye surgeries! Removing cataracts is the main focus of this team and they will perform these surgeries on both children and adults over the next few months until the end of the field service. They also do other eye screenings and distribute reading glasses. Part of the program is held at the local hospital in Cotonou, called CNHU, where Mercy Ships volunteers train local nurses and surgeons so that these surgeries can continue after the ship leaves.

Many of these patients were born with cataracts; others developed them over time and have been blind for many years. A cataract is basically a clouding of the lens of the eye that blocks vision. I can't even imagine what it is like to live without sight - to be completely dependent on others to get around and not be able to work or care for your family!

Maurice waits hopefully at eye screening to find out if the Mercy Ships' surgeons will be able to fix his cataracts.
A simple outpatient surgery to clear the clouded lens is performed in a few minutes and these patients go home the same day. It's incredible that this small procedure can change the course of a person's life - especially when that person has no hope to find a surgeon or pay the exorbitant fee to get cataract surgery in this country.

Last week, I was privileged to get to witness the first Celebration of Sight in Benin this year! A few weeks after their surgeries, the patients return for a follow up appointment and then they all join together for a time of praise and thanksgiving to God for giving them back their sight. Other Mercy Ships crew members are invited to come and join in this celebration of 44 people whose vision has been restored. There was music, singing and lots of dancing- as well as several testimonies from a few of the patients! Young and old patients alike shared stories of waiting years for someone who could fix their eyes or trying to save huge amounts of money only to be told their case was too difficult for the local surgeons. One after another they came to the front, praising God for bringing Mercy Ships to their country and healing their sight, until the chaplains finally had to limit the number for lack of time!
I want to declare this day, the 17th of February, ‘The Day for the Celebration of Sight’!” Says Rita, who dances in her pink patterned dress, able to see for the first time in years. “Every year on this day, you must praise God with your family,” she shouts. “ Praise God that we have sight!!!

I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to attend this celebration. It was an honor to witness these transformations and hear some incredible stories of HOPE restored. The eye program did not run while I was on the ship last year so this is the first experience I've had with it. Vision truly is so important in life and I'm very glad the program is back again this year in Benin to change more lives one eye at a time! Just another way Mercy Ships is following the model of Jesus to heal the sick, give sight the blind and bring good news to all people.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dear Miracle

A few months ago, in November and December, I was privileged to be a part of leading the Orthopedic Surgery Program on the ship. We provided 76 children with free orthopedic surgery to repair deformities of the legs and feet that will allow them to walk, run, play and grow like a normal child again! I could write pages on why I love these patients and how much it means to see them progress through surgery and rehabilitation but I will let one of our amazing ship writers share a story from one of our very special little girls, Miracle.
“Mom? Where did these scars come from?” Miracle will one day ask her mom, pointing to the marks on her leg. And Sylvie will be ready to tell her daughter the story, which will sound something like this … 
“You see, my child, I know you can’t remember, but when you were born, one of your legs was shaped quite differently than the other. I don’t know why it happened, and neither did the local doctors. They said there was nothing they could do. Part of me didn’t mind because I loved you from the moment I saw you, no matter what. But another part of me worried about the pain it would cause you one day. I wondered, ‘Would it be hard for you to walk? Would others see you as different?’ 
“As your first months turned into your first year, I’d hoped and prayed for your leg to straighten and that you’d somehow grow out of whatever was causing this. But there was no change. You fell down often, trying to walk like the other kids. (I can’t say I didn’t cherish the moments you reached for my hand to steady yourself!) Still, you were very determined. You didn’t let this challenge hold you back, and soon you were getting into everything. I could see early on the strong woman you’d become one day. Still, I wanted so badly to find a way to help you. 
“Then, on a hot day in August, while selling bread in the market, I heard an announcement on the radio. I listened as closely as I could, trying to hear over the noise of the crowds. The words ‘orthopedic surgery’ and ‘Mercy Ships’ rang out as clear as day. Immediately I said, ‘That’s for us!’ as a hope ignited deep within me. 
“We went to see the doctors, and they examined your leg. At only two years old, you didn’t know what it all meant. They asked you to walk to the other side of the room, and you did. ‘Now walk back to us,’ they said, while they tested and measured. It was there that we received the news. The doctors said they could straighten your leg with surgery. ‘Could it be true?’ I thought. Then they handed me a yellow card with a date on it. It was our ticket to hope. I guarded it with my life, knowing one day I’d pass it along to you along with this story. 
“I remember counting the days for our next visit. I remember as we walked up steep stairs onto the large white boat as it sat calmly on the water. The doctors met with us and explained the surgery and recovery. As I listened, all I could think was:  ‘Whatever you need to do, Doctor! Do your work!’ 
“The next day, they took you to another room while I waited. I prayed with the other moms: ‘God, go with the doctors – be their hands while they work.’ After a few hours, you were brought back, ready to wake up from medicine. They told me everything went well and according to plan. I was so relieved! Your leg was wrapped in a hard bandage they called a ‘cast.’ As I examined it, I realized that inside that hard bandage was my little girl’s leg, no longer bent in the wrong direction. I was so filled with joy! 
“During the days that followed, there were moments when you struggled. ‘Get this off my leg right now!’ you hollered, pointing to your bandage. I did everything I could to calm you – and so did the nurses. And as more days passed, your leg continued healing, along with your spirits. 
“The time came for us to leave the ship, but the bandage stayed on. Your third birthday had just passed. I was so proud of you. Proud of how strong you’d been and proud of the future you had in store. 
“A few weeks later, we went back, and they took the hard bandage off. I couldn’t believe my eyes … and neither could you! It was almost too much to take in. But then it occurred to me, ‘Why am I surprised that God answered our prayers?’ 
“Now, my dear girl, when you see those marks on your leg, remember how much I love you. You will always be God’s Miracle to me.”
Story by Windsor Marchesi
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Miguel Ottaviano and Justine Forrest

Miracle was born with a windswept leg, making it hard for her to walk. She wants to be able to do what the other kids do.
Miracle had free surgery on the Africa Mercy. She didn’t like the “hard bandage” at first, but quickly got used to it. 

Now that Miracle’s leg is straight, she can walk easily and do what other kids can do! Sylvie and Miracle are so happy, and they have a special message for everyone who helped make it possible – “Thank you!”

Monday, January 30, 2017


I get the question often ‘why do you do this’? People from home ask why I would leave a good job and comfortable life in the US to pay money to work and live in a cramped cabin on a ship with 400 other people. People from this country ask me why I would give up my life at home to travel across the world to provide surgeries for people I don’t even know and who could never repay.

This question would probably have a different answer for every person serving with Mercy Ships. Some people would say they serve to help others and make a difference in the world. Others would say they love to travel and see the world. And maybe others would say it makes them feel better about themselves or it’s their duty to help the poor. The easy and quick answer I generally tell people is that God has shown me throughout my life the need for physical and spiritual healing that exists in the world and once you see the need, it’s impossible to ignore. The deeper answer is a little more complicated…

As I was reading my devotional this morning, I began to think about this in a whole new way. The verse today was Ephesians 5:2 which says, “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a slain offering and sacrifice to God, a sweet fragrance”. I’d imagine you are similar to me in that when you think about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, you consider it a cruel punishment that would cause pain to His Father to watch. None of us want to imagine watching our own child go through that kind of suffering. But as the author said in this devotional, have you ever noticed the next phrase “a sweet fragrance”? Not only was the cross an offering and sacrifice, it was a sweet fragrance to God! I can’t say it any better with my own words so I’m just going to quote this next part…”Such is the incredible depth of God’s love for us that he would count the atrocities committed against his Son as a sweet fragrance. Such is the enormity of God’s desire for restored relationship with us that he would look upon the death of his Son with favorable remembrance.” (Craig Denison)

The point of the study was to remind Christians that God loved us enough to sacrifice His son and He considers us worthy of relationship with Him, whatever the cost. But I took a different message away from these lines. Don’t read into this too much; I never want to compare what I am doing to the huge sacrifice of Jesus. But it did make think of a new answer to the question of “Why”. Why would you ‘give your life as an offering’ and ‘sacrifice so much’? The answer: because I want my life to be a sweet fragrance to God.

God longs for a relationship with the people of Benin as much as He longs for a relationship with the people of the US and Canada and the UK and China. He already gave His son to give them eternal life, but He cares about their present life as well. And He has chosen to use this motley crew of volunteers from around the world to give them a better, longer, more productive life through the free surgeries, medical care, and education we provide. Along the way, the hope is that they will also feel the love of Jesus and gain a closer relationship with the Father through what they see and experience here.

If my identity is truly based in the depth of God’s love for me, it’s all I can do to give my life back to God as a ‘sweet fragrance’ – in whatever way He wants to use it, no matter what the sacrifice.

Quotes and verses borrowed from this devotional: (by Craig Denison)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Happy New Year from Benin

This update was sent as an email to anyone on my support list so I thought I'd also place it here in case any of you my readers are not on the list (PS-If you'd like to receive email updates, please let me know in the comments!). Some of this will be repetitive if you've been reading my blog the past few months but there's a few new statistics and pictures! Without further ado...

Greetings from Benin!
I hope and pray that this email finds you and your family well, and that this holiday season was one full of joy and blessings! As we approach the coming of 2017 and near the halfway point of this field service in Benin, it seemed like a good time to send a quick update of things here on the Africa Mercy.

After an exciting 10 months in Madagascar and a quick break in the US, I headed to South Africa to meet the ship in Durban where it was docked between field services for maintenance. I was excited to get back to the ship to see my ship friends (who have become like family) and finally get to SAIL! As crazy as it sounds, up until that time, I’d never been on the ship while it was moving. Sailing is a different experience but I loved it! It took a day or two to get my “sea legs” as we hit some rough seas along the way. Things settled down once we made it around South Africa and headed up the Western coast and we were able to enjoy calm seas, beautiful sunsets and a few wildlife sightings. 

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean
The gangway (our staircase) being lifted onto the ship. The very last step before we leave the port in Durban, South Africa
Two weeks of sailing later, we arrived in Benin – and a celebration was waiting for us! Our advance team (a group of crew who go ahead of the ship to organize things with our host country) and a team of dancers and musicians greeted the ship as we entered the port. Later that day, a group of dignitaries and partners held an Arrival Ceremony to officially welcome us to Benin. Again, this was another first for me since, in Madagascar, I flew to the country and joined the ship after it arrived. It was really fun to be a part of this long awaited arrival and feel the excitement of the Beninoise people for us to be serving their country.

Emmanuel, a crew member from Benin, carries the flag of Benin to begin the procession to the arrival ceremony.
Then it was time for the work to begin. On the ship, we worked hard getting everything cleaned and set up in the hospital so it would be ready for patients. About 60 new nurses arrived the week before the hospital opened and we spent a few days getting them ready to work. It was fun to be on the receiving end of these new crew and think back to 1 year ago when I was in their shoes!

Everything in the hospital has to be cleaned TWICE by hand. No Madagascar germs allowed to in Benin!
An exhausted but happy cleaning team
Off the ship, another team was holding mass screenings in the local city to find our first group of patients. This is a huge job that requires the teamwork of many volunteers from the ship. Several thousand people showed up every day and had to be filtered through to find potential patients that have the types of conditions we can treat. The Screening team worked extremely hard, sometimes putting in 12-14 hour days, but successfully filled about 50% of our surgery spots in 3 weeks! The rest of the spots were filled by patients selected during upcountry screenings over the next few months.

Endless lines of colorful West African fabric
Long days of screening to find the right patients for surgery. This was one of our future Ortho patients!
Finally, on September 11, the hospital welcomed our first patients for surgery. It’s always an exciting time when the empty hospital starts filling with patients and caregivers, nurses and day crew, doctors and surgeons. As wonderful as it is to have everything clean and tidy, these people are the reason we are here and the reason we do what we do. Without them, our mission would be useless; they show me over and over again what real trust and hope look like each time a new patient steps foot on this ship.

Nurses and day crew excited to open the hospital to the very first patients of Benin!
In the first 4 months of our time in Benin, 550 surgeries have been performed! As a ward nurse, I work primarily in Plastics/Reconstructive Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery. I would consider plastics my original home since I started there from the beginning and have worked in that area the most. 92 plastic surgeries were done in September and October. It’s a busy time and the patients often stay anywhere from 3-8 weeks post-surgery to allow time for their wounds to heal so we become very close with them in that period.

Krystal and Memuna enjoy a special moment on Deck 7
One of our plastics patients named Carole
In November, Orthopedic surgery started – and this is my true love. I had the privilege of being the Team Leader for Orthopedics in the ward this year (which is basically like coordinator of all things Ortho not inside the operating room). It was challenging to be in a new role but I enjoyed sharing my passion with many new nurses and getting to work with a great team of surgeons and physical therapists. There’s just something about those little crooked legs, tiny casts and miniature plastic walkers that makes me smile. Orthopedics on the ship is limited to children - which is another reason I love it so much, although the ward can be quite a noisy place at times (I nicknamed it the Zoo!!). 

Our very first patient, Maurinho was such a champ! We know how to have fun in Ortho :)
Nurse Amy shows a patient how it's done!

In other areas of the hospital, 162 general and 202 Maxillo-Facial surgeries were also completed. I don’t have as much involvement in these areas but they occasionally overlap with my ward. General surgery is usually for minor issues like hernias, small tumors and enlarged thyroids. These conditions may not be dangerous but they are definitely life altering and a small procedure can make a huge difference to the quality of life for these patients and their families. Max-Facs involves anything on the head and neck. This ranges from simple cleft lips to massive jaw tumors and growths from nerves and blood vessels. Many of these conditions are life threatening and the patients would eventually die from suffocation or starvation without surgery. 

A few Goiter patients during screening.
Nurse Cara with a cleft lip patient before surgery.
Outside of our hospital, classes and training for local medical providers are always happening. We call this area Medical Capacity Building. Ponseti clubfoot clinic, nurse training, surgeon mentoring, SAFE anesthesia, trauma care and Helping Babies Breathe courses are just a few of the many areas covered under this program. Over 700 Beninoise people have been impacted by these trainings so far and they will take that learning back to their homes and workplaces to hopefully improve the medical care provided in this country for years after the ship leaves.

WHO checklist project sends a team all over Benin to train surgical teams in this lifesaving method.
Local midwives and nurses learn to resuscitate babies in the Helping Babies Breathe course.
But all of these things would be impossible without people like you praying and supporting this ministry! God is working in this country and through this ship each and every day – He is also working through YOU to bring hope and healing to the people of Benin. The part you play - no matter how small you think it is - makes the impossible possible! Thank you for your continued support and encouragement for the past year and a half. And know that YOU really make a difference in this place and for each person impacted through Mercy Ships!

Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!
Hospital Team Benin 2016