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