Career

The Kiwi nurse saving lives in Africa

Auckland nurse Steph Clarke volunteers on the hospital ship Africa Mercy, providing free hospital care to developing countries.

By Ciara Pratt

My husband Jonny and I both knew before we got married that we were interested in volunteering overseas. Funnily enough, we'd both heard about Mercy Ships separately and knew it would be the right fit for us!

We travelled all the way to Benin, a country between Togo and Nigeria in West Africa, to board the Africa Mercy. It's the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world and provides free hospital care to developing countries.

It was quite the culture shock when we got on board. There must have been around 30 nationalities among the 400 staff alone, and learning about the culture of Benin and its people was quite something.

I was working in the plastics department across every age range, which was new for me because back home I work at Auckland's Starship children's hospital. Jonny, meanwhile, helped with IT and software.

I saw a lot of people who had suffered bad burns or who had deformities to their skin or joints. I still think about a little boy named Valentine, who was one of our first patients.

He'd been playing with matches and set off a house fire that left him badly burned. He couldn't access proper medical care, so his scarring caused his thighs to pull right up to his abdomen - he couldn't stand up straight or run. He came to the ship with his dad for surgery.Valentine came from a really poor area, but someone in his community had heard about Mercy Ships, and so he and his dad travelled for a long time to reach us.

They didn't have much money, so they slept in a local park the night before so they could be first in line to be screened for surgery.

That's how it works - people in communities like theirs hear about amazing surgeries taking place for free and word spreads.

Another patient I formed a special bond with was Esperance. She was in her fifties and had received burns to her whole body when her husband threw acid on her. She had severe scarring over her face, chest and arms, and she developed severe burn contracture scarring, which meant the scars had fused her arms to her chest.Such terrible disfigurement meant many of her friends and family had stopped visiting her. She travelled for many days to reach the ship - a family member had to pin her bus money to her clothes because she couldn't hand it to the driver herself.

Happily, we were able to give Esperance surgery to release the scars that restricted her arms. But I think the most striking transformation for her on board wasn't physical - it was her emotional healing.

The crew was able to demonstrate genuine love for her, and gave her the respect and care she'd grown not to expect for herself from anyone else.

That's another important element of what we do - it's not just about the body healing, but the spirit too. Esperance left the ship still with scars, albeit with more range of movement, but she also left with a new belief in herself and a belief in others as well.

Another unique experience Jonny and I had on board the Africa Mercy was that we were able to donate blood to the same person being treated on the ship. The crew doubles as a living blood bank because the lab doesn't really have the resources to store blood.

We donate blood as it's needed for patients during their surgeries.

It's honestly so incredible to be able to donate blood to patients who desperately need it, but being able to meet them and participate in their road to recovery is very special. Jonny and I are both O+ so our blood was given jointly to a patient called Julian, who had a massive facial tumour.

I think one of the challenges for me is that whatever I accomplish, it just feels like a drop in the ocean of poverty and sickness. How can you possibly give help to all of the people out there who need it?

But a surgeon on the ship who's been there for decades said something that's stuck with me: 'We cannot change the world, but we can change the world for an individual.' That's such a beautiful description for what Mercy Ships is trying to achieve.

It's a wonderful feeling to be able to care for people when they're at their most vulnerable - and in my three-and-a-half years of nursing, it's that feeling that's brought me a lot of joy."

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