“But, … even now, I still don’t understand how there is such a lack of resources over there – it’s ridiculous.”
Jess found her way onto the ship because of a documentary.
About two years earlier, she had hyperextended her ankle on her way to a shift at the Mater Hospital and was housebound watching television after an ankle reconstruction.
She said she had a “gut feeling that I should check the TV guide”.
The Surgery Ship was on television.
That was in April 2017 and, flicking to the eight-part documentary of the stories from aboard a Mercy Ship, Jess said it was the first time in eight or so months that she “felt anything”.
“My heart just went – you need to be there,” she said, only minutes into the first episode.
Jess, who described herself as “not impulsive”, filled out the forms online and applied to join Mercy Ships after only watching the second episode.
“I remember being like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done? But, oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever’,” she said.
She went from documentary to dock within two years, arriving on board in Cameroon on March 25, 2018.
She said she had been preparing her heart for the voyage.
The medical conditions she was going to confront included facial tumours and cleft palates, physical deformities she knew were going to be confronting, and she wanted to prepare herself not to visibly react when she saw them.
It took about a week and a half aboard the ship for her to start seeing past the deformities, and she said it was a moment of “surreal” clarity for her.
Day-by-day her faith grew, too.
“Daily, we were seeing miracles happen,” she said.
“There was a little boy, his name is Paul, he came to the ship in Cameroon right at the beginning.
“He had had a cleft lip and palate, and they opened the ship early for him, because they thought he was going to die.
“And he shocked everyone and put on enough weight to have his lip done and, right at the end of the field service, he put on enough weight to have his palate repaired.
“To watch him go from this scrawny little three-month-old who weighed two-something kilos, to leaving the ship at 10-something kilos … and I only witnessed two and a half months of it … but he learned to crawl, learned to walk, said his first words on the ship.
“It’s the greatest job in the world.”
It was much like a regular hospital.
The only real difference to a hospital back home was the prayerfulness, she said, and the confronting difference of life on and off the ship.
Staff lived on the lower decks on a “first-world ship” with air-conditioning, running water, flushing toilets, three meals a day, and fitted with a gym, a café and a shop, among other things.
Outside was a different story.
Jess had to set up the mass-screening infrastructure for the ship in August 2018.
“We were tasked with preparing the centre and putting barriers on the road and one thing that really shocked me is – in Australia, we line up for things behind each other; in Africa, it’s just a big blob of people,” she said.
“We were putting the barriers up and we had this elderly man, he had no fingers, and he pulled on my shirt and he said, ‘Sister, sister’,” she said.
Then he said, “Food, food”, in his own language.
“So he was telling me he was hungry,” Jess said. “There were 6000 other people there so I couldn’t give him food.
“But just to look in his eyes and then have to ignore him and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t give you anything’.
“That broke me – and that was like three hours into the night shift.
“But then, come the morning, there were thousands of people there and they were all centred on the gate.
“Just watching the crowd and seeing how many people there were and the varying degrees of illness and disability – it really got me.
“They probably have never seen a doctor in their life, but here they are with the hope that we can fix them even if we can’t.”
The unfortunate reality was that the ship had to turn away most of the people.
The Mercy Ships are only for surgery, which means they cannot help with medical issues like asthma or diabetes.
Of the 6000, about 800 were selected for surgery.
Those who could not be helped were told to see their doctors but, for those desperate people, most did not have doctors to see.
“The screening team has the worst job of saying, ‘No, I’m sorry we can’t help you’,” Jess said.
At times, Jess found herself feeling very lonely in a “weird” way because she was surrounded by 450 of her closest friends.
“Everyone (on staff was) there for the same reasons, but when you’re there, you all go through different things in your heart, mentally and emotionally, and sometimes it’s really hard to talk about,” she said.
“Then you don’t know how to talk about it, and you hold it in and pull yourself away.”
That was part of the reason for the prayerfulness of the ship; each shift started with prayer, staff would pray with patients before procedures and there was an overall Christian atmosphere to it all – though people did not need to be Christian to apply.
“My faith is definitely stronger than it was before going and I think that’s because I’ve been able to see more in the short time that I was in Africa than I have been in the past 26 years in Australia,” she said.
“Being able to be empathetic towards someone in a time of their life when they are vulnerable and they are hurting, being able to provide comfort for them, gives them something to look forward to and gives them a peace in the way that someone is caring for me – someone knows what I’m going through and I’m not alone in my fight for healing – that’s powerful.”
Returning home was “excruciating” at times, she said.
“I felt like I couldn’t go back,” she said.
“I didn’t want to listen to people complaining; all the abuse we get here because someone wants a cup of tea and we’re five minutes late.”
But as more of her friends have had a go with Mercy Ships, coming home has been easier.
“You make life-long friends and it’s easy to talk to them because they know what it’s like and they know what it’s like to come home,” she said.
“Before I went, I was the biggest ball of anxiety and stress and negativity, I just didn’t really enjoy life.
“Coming back, I’m chill about everything.”
Jess said Mercy Ships were looking for people from all walks of life not just medical staff – engineers, cooks, teachers – to apply.
She will be returning to the ship in a few weeks to work where it is docked in Senegal.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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