Deep breath and say this fast – I’ve been back in the country 14 days and I’m finally starting to feel grounded. I’ve accomplished a lot in the time I’ve been stateside – seen friends in New Mexico, got some unplanned work done on my car, organized my “travel boxes,” loaded up a U-Haul trailer, drove to Arkansas, unpacked, slept, drove to Florida to pick up my precious dog, Riley, and visit with the dear friends who cared for her, and drove back to Arkansas where I finally stopped.
What does my life look like now? I’m back in the city I chose for my next assignment. I will be working at a facility that I felt would be like coming home and where I will be able to continue to absorb what the last 3 months were like for me. When I talk about my time in Madagascar with my friends, they tell me I get an “airy” look on my face and a wistfulness in my voice. I can’t begin to explain the experience in mere words. How can I share what it feels like to fall in love with men, women and children that I will never see again and yet my life is forever changed by the brief time in which our paths crossed?
For someone who struggled to share a room with five other women, I find that I miss having other people to bump into (literally and figuratively) on a daily basis. I miss the accountability of where I spend my time and with whom, and the ability to walk out of my cabin, through a pair of double doors and into the hospital ward to see how my patients/friends/coworkers are doing. I miss the opportunity to share prayer time with someone else anytime, day or night. And I especially miss the familiar scents of the hospital, Malagasy people and the country.
How am I taking care of my transition? I’ve been sending emails to Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and Dallas and sorting through the thousands of photos I took. I started my new position at Arkansas Children’s Hospital yesterdayay. I woke to freezing temperatures and snow and ice on the ground, making what should have been a 20-minute drive to work take 45 minutes. Thankfully, I got there safe and sound. With my drug test and computer training completed, I will start working actual shifts in two days. I’m looking forward to being in a traditional hospital again, and I know that I will be noticing the differences having just come off the ship. There will be group change of shift report, but there will not be a group prayer for the patients and nurses before the shift begins. I won’t be able to just drop in on the ward on my day off to see how patients are doing, and I won’t form separate relationships with the caregivers of my patients.
When folks ask me if I’d go back, my answer is always YES!! But I realize that if I go back my experience would be different simply becausee I am different. Every experience changes one’s life in some way, and I know that this one can never be replicated.
I will always hold my Mercy Ships experience close. The patients and friends that I met will always have a place in my heart. Their names and faces are etched on my soul and I trust that I will be carried in theirs.
My assignment here is 8 weeks long. Although it will pass quickly, I know it will allow me enough time to get back into the swing of my travel nurse life. I will have new adventures with and without my pup, form new friendships, and maintain connections that I have made over the years. I’m grateful for my TNAA family who take me as I am and let me cry, laugh and bring my dog to the office. Little Rock is a good place for me to get grounded, get real and continue to grow personally and professionally. Mercy Ships will never be far from my mind, but life does go on and I couldn’t be in a better place to resume what was my norm.
I have to end this note as I have all my others.
I’m now in my final days aboard the Africa Mercy, and I find myself struggling with what to write. There are so many thoughts, feelings and emotions going through me as this amazing journey ends and I say goodbye to friends and patients for which I have come to care deeply. It’s hard to believe that 10 weeks have already passed.
When I think about my time on Mercy Ships, there are only a few things I won’t miss. This short list includes sharing such a small space and only one shower with five other women, having to avoid the GI sickness that has been passed around (I’m writing this in a conference room by myself because one of my roommates just came back to the bunk with GI symptoms – I hightailed it out of there fast!), and having the same meals prepared for me at the same times each week. I love to cook and create new recipes in the kitchen, so I definitely won’t miss the routine and repetition of mealtimes here.
The list of things I will miss is much longer. I have loved getting up in the mornings before the sun has fully risen and watching the fisherman start bringing in their catches while I run or walk. When I have run, it has mostly been alone and it is my time to talk with God. When I’ve walked, it has been a time of fellowship with friends. It’s the time we use to sort through our own struggles, praise what is good in our lives, and get exercise all at the same time. Multi-tasking is a must for ICU nurses!
I will miss my “shop ladies” at Bazaar Be. I have taken a friend of mine, Lizzie, with me a few times so she can check up on “my baby” after I leave. I have watched this little boy grow so much over the last 10 weeks! When I met him my first week, he couldn’t focus his eyes at all, but now he coos, babbles, tracks and smiles all the time! I will miss him and I know that his momma will remember “the blonde nurse from Mercy Ships” who came to visit him every week.
I will also miss the sounds of the tuk tuk carts that zip up and down the roads, narrowly missing the pousse pousse drivers and pedestrians. Driving in Tomatave takes a certain amount of courage one can only appreciate if you’ve been a passenger in either mode of transportation. There’s also the sound of the roosters that start crowing at the crack of dawn – I have given up listening to music lately just to hear the sounds of the city waking itself up. And I will definitely miss the year-round warm weather. I promised my recruiter, Donna, that next winter I would take some “cold location” assignments, so this time next year will look very different!
Lastly, and this is the hardest part to write, I will miss my patients. I have nursed these patients in a very different way than I have ever done before. We joke that one is truly a “Mercy Ships nurse” when you have painted finger nails, played Jenga and blown thousands upon thousands of bubbles (part of our cleft lip/cleft palate patients’ therapy). I will miss being “Momma Lee” to young patients who don’t want to eat their food and getting them to clean their plates. I will miss comforting patients in English, Malagasy and the universal language of touch before they go into surgery, and I will miss seeing the bright smiles at the outcome of a multiple surgical procedure.
I’m thankful for the help and support of so many during this adventure. First, I’m thankful for TNAA, whose generosity helped this dream come to life. I’m also thankful for the support of my friends back home who have lifted me up in so many ways, through donations, cards and kind words. Thank you to my dear friends, Ron and Linda, for taking such wonderful care of my pup, Riley. And for all the prayers I’ve received from people I don’t know around the country, thank you!
And thank you for letting me share what has been my life for the last 10 weeks. I will post a short follow-up blog when I finally land at “home.” I will be back in Arkansas for my next assignment. I usually don’t do “repeat” assignments, but I wanted to see my TNAA family and as a travel nurse, I can highly recommend Arkansas Children’s Hospital for those of you who are uncertain where you might want to work next.
As I sit on my bunk this morning, I’m letting all that has occurred during the last 8.5 weeks pour over me. It’s been a lot. There has been absolute joy and tears of gratitude, as well as tears of sadness and tears of confusion – and they have all been necessary. I’ve experienced belly laughter that hasn’t taken place in a long time, and I’ve been touched by the loss of friends going back home and the loss of patients that we were unable to help. All of it has changed my life.
I have loved working on Mercy Ships Africa. I spent my time doing 1.5 weeks in the PACU as a recovery nurse, nearly 3 weeks teaching our Malagasy day crew basic health topics 8 hours a day, and I also worked Ward D, our Max-Fac unit where lots of miracles are taking place. It has not been a straight line approach to nursing. As travelers, many of us are asked to be flexible and it hasn’t been any different here.
A friend wrote on my Facebook page that it looks like I’m having so much fun I won’t be able to leave, but the reality is that I will be ready to leave in 2 weeks. For me, this is no different than a travel assignment. I show up, do my absolute best enjoying my work and my surroundings, and then leave, trusting and hoping that the mark I have left is positive and I would be welcomed back. Will I be sad? Yes, that goes without saying, but I will be excited to start my next adventure.
I think the real question is, would I come back? Absolutely! I am in the midst of praying about it now to see if this is where God might want me for a shorter stint next year. What I keep hearing is that I might come back to work strictly PACU for only 4 weeks. We will see what God/the universe has planned for me. Until then, I will continue to enjoy my last 2 weeks here, continue to pray and ask for your prayers in helping me hear that message.
Veloma from Madagascar!
Until next time,
I started my New Year’s Day walking to the Hope Center with two other nurses/friends. The Hope Center is where patients who live far away from Tamatave (where the ship is docked) go for treatment. Think Ronald McDonald House – a facility for patients and caregivers. There were a few special former patients I wanted to see and this visit was the perfect way for me to begin 2015!
Our visit to the Hope Center had a few unexpected gifts. A few weeks ago I was teaching a group of men and women who will be working as the day crew at the Hope Center. When I saw them they shouted my name and rushed over to hug and kiss me. The second gift happened when we were able to have our photos taken with former patients. I can’t post them here because they were taken with a “Mercy Ship camera” and have to be approved, but once that happens you bet you’ll be seeing them! The third gift came when I got to see two of my favorite past patients. One man is 34 years old and I was his PACU and ward nurse. I affectionately call him “Trouble” and he knows it. He now refers to himself as “Trouble” when I am around.
The other patient is a young man who is 15 years old. I was his primary nurse on the ward and he and I just “got” each other. He wouldn’t eat for the other nurses, but he ate half of his food when I asked him to. I guess since I’m known on the ship as “Momma Lee,” my patients know I mean business! His mother is one of the women I was with when I shared my “sisters” photo earlier. When we were leaving, the day crew asked when I was coming back and my “gotta eat” boy asked if I was coming back tomorrow.
For me, all of these “gifts” just reinforce why I’m here. Having past students – now off-site co-workers – remember me, patients and their families wanting photos taken with me, and seeing a 15-year-old boy with a smile that can light up a room when he sees the nurse who “made him eat” mashed up food – THIS is why God placed me where he has at this time. Happy New Year to all!!
How do I begin to explain Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the ship? It was a celebration unlike anything I’ve experienced in the States. I had a wonderful time with my coworkers, families on the ship, and even some of the locals.
After dinner on Christmas Eve we had a worship service in the International Lounge. We sang, lit the last Advent candle, listened to the school band perform, and the Chaplain gave her blessing over us. Our Advent focus this year was courage, which seemed so fitting for me personally. I really do love our Sunday night gatherings. They are not mandatory, but such a good way to end/start a week.
Then we all went to our cabins so we could put out a shoe (yes, just one) with our name tag on it so that Santa would know for whom to leave gifts. On my door we also hung stockings – hey, you have to take advantage of every opportunity when it involves Santa. In the morning we woke up to find our stockings filled and our shoes brimming with goodies. Most of the “presents” Santa left were candy, but I also got a bracelet, some nail polish, and gift certificates to use in the ship shop or the cafe.
Christmas morning I went to 7 a.m. mass. I was raised Catholic, and it felt very important for me to attend the local parish. I was one of three non-Malagasy faces in the congregation and although the service was in French, it was so good for my spirit to celebrate Christmas in a familiar way in an unfamiliar place. I received a special gift on my way back to the ship when I was greeted by a Malagasy woman who was dressed in her holiday best. We wished one another Merry Christmas (in French) and then she took my hand in hers and kissed my face in the Malagasy fashion which is three kisses on alternating cheeks. Wow! This would so NOT happen in the States. I was filled with warmth and love from a stranger and it didn’t feel strange at all!
I walked back to the ship (about 2 km) and there was a lovely brunch set up for all of us to enjoy. It was a feast that won’t be seen here again until Easter. I was told that we had 120 kg of ham and turkey. For those who haven’t spent the last 5 weeks using nothing but kilograms and Celsius as measurements, that equals about 265 pounds of meat!
As a good American following tradition, I took a nap in my cabin after lunch and it was fabulous! When I woke up, four of us went off ship and took a 2-hour walk. The beach was packed with locals who were celebrating Christmas in their own tradition. I just love interacting with the locals!
Our final activity for the holiday was that some families opened up their cabins on the ship and had even more goodies to offer us should we want to partake. It was a great way to create and foster community on the ship.
I want to mention that I have received many email notes from my TNAA “family members” as well. It was such a gift and a lift to my spirits to open up my email and see notes of Merry Christmas and prayers being offered up for those of us on Mercy Ships, our patients and the staff. I was incredibly touched by the outpouring of support and kindness. I keep saying I work for the best company ever, and now I just have more evidence that this is true!
I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas (should you celebrate the holiday) and may the New Year bring us all what we set for our intention!
Until next time,
Veluma (Goodbye in Malagasy)
It’s a little hard to believe that Christmas is only days away and harder still to realize that I’ve been on the ship 4 weeks as of Sunday. Time has flown by and yet there are moments when it feels as though it has just stopped.
The ship is decorated in its Christmas finery, and we are starting to have Christmas performances. Tonight is our Christmas Ballet show and the night after will be caroling and the cookie exchange. It’s odd for this gal from the States to be in a country where it’s 85 degrees with 95% humidity and we are singing carols about “dashing through the snow.”
I’m working on Ward D, which is our Max-Fac ward and normally a happy place to work. We see children and young adults with shocking facial anomalies, but after repair there is a glow in their eyes and in the eyes of their caregivers as well. We DO see miracles. Noses created where there were none, large tumorous masses removed, changing not only the look of the patient but their spirit as well.
This week, however, we have had a somberness come over the unit. Two children that came to us for biopsies and evaluations were told (by Chaplaincy) that there was nothing we could do for them. Our Chaplains have a God-given gift to deliver such news in a way that doesn’t leave the families and patients in despair. That being said, it has been VERY hard on the nurses, especially those who were primary nurses for these two patients. How do we comfort another when there just aren’t words to explain or take away the hurt and pain of knowing there is an inevitable loss? We pray together, we hug a lot, we continue to encourage one another to remember that we HAVE to take care of our own being in order to continue to do the work that we are obviously called to do, and it bears repeating, we pray.
On another note, last night there was a moment of lightness on the unit when I noticed all the Malagasy women had tied up their hair in scarves so that the cotton from the sheets didn’t dry it out. It’s a practice that goes on all around the world for women of color with textured hair. My heart was feeling heavy and I wanted to get out of my own head, so I too put on a “scarf” for my non-textured hair. The women have now deemed me their “sister” and after hearing this, I asked if they wanted to have a photo taken together (which of course they did since pictures are a VERY big deal here). I need to share that NONE of these women are patients, and I will not give any identifiable information as to who belongs to whom. Let’s just say that the mood lightened a bit, and they will have a keepsake of their time here (I’ll print up the pics and laminate them). Sometimes that is the best nursing I can do.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on the ship for three weeks already. In some ways it feels much longer – not in a bad way but in a familiar way. I’ve already had to say goodbye to two separate groups of people, and that gets a bit hard on the heart. I can’t explain how one can get attached to another in such a short time, but it seems to happen time and again.
Something that is a challenge for us here on the ship is finding alone time. As a travel nurse, and for those who know me, one would think I’d thrive on the constant interaction with others, but I’m finding that I have a personal goal to have absolute alone time every day. It’s a way for me to regroup, recharge and refocus my energy so I can keep my mind and spirit healthy.
One way I take care of myself is to go running 3-4 mornings each week. I also make sure that I take a long walk into town when I’m not working. I now have Malagasy faces that have become familiar and constant for me. There is a woman, Momma Bey, who sits with her daughter and granddaughter on the side of the street selling fruits who now extends her hand as I walk by so that I can give her a sideways hand slap, which is a common greeting here in Toma. It started out with her asking me for “1 mil” when I first walked by her two weeks ago. I simply said, “I have no money” and kept walking. The very next day she saw me, her face lit up and we started the hand slapping ritual.
In the early mornings when I head out for my runs, I see another woman setting up her juice stand. Since we are at the port, there are many, many port workers who pass by her. We have a wave and head nod ritual we do, and we both share a smile. I know if I didn’t see her one morning, I would wonder what might have happened. It is these quiet connections with people off the ship that also help keep me present and grounded.
I was speaking with a friend the other night and sharing some of my feelings about this adventure, and he asked if I would do it again. Without a moment’s hesitation I said yes! It’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it all rainbows and butterflies. But it is absolutely where I belong.
I’ve been thinking I should write about what life is like on the ship since I haven’t said much yet about day-to-day stuff. First of all, I sleep in a room with six other women. Some are on the ship long-term, for the whole 10 months of service, while others are here as short as two weeks. We sleep two to an area that is the size of an average laundry room in a house. Each area has bunk beds, a desk, four shelves and one closet with two sides that are 20 inches wide. Our luggage and laundry are stored under the bottom bunk (mine).
We have one shower and toilet to share. I often go down the hall to use a communal bathroom to avoid waking others when I have to be ready early in the morning. Most of us lay out our clothes the night before so we can dress in very minimal light so we don’t disturb each other.
Meals are at set times. Breakfast is from 6-7:30 a.m. and consists of hard boiled eggs, plain yogurt, dry cereals, hot cereal and bread. There is always peanut butter and jelly, Nutella, mayonnaise (the Dutch put it on everything!), and lychee fruit or mango available. Tuesdays are “flapjack” days and they’re my favorite. They’re more crepe-like in texture and thickness than the pancakes we’re used to in the U.S., but it’s the treat I look forward to all week. Lunch is served from 12-1:30 p.m. and dinner from 4:45-6:30 p.m. If you miss mealtime, you miss a meal.
Since we have so many families aboard with children, we have a school on the ship. We have 15 full-time teachers for Pre-K through high school. The school is accredited, preparing students to leave the ship and attend college.
We have four full operating rooms and one eye surgery room for wards that each consist of 20 beds and a PACU. Since I’ve been here, I’ve only had one true ICU patient. Most would be considered step-down or med surg patients.
Alone time is hard to find on the ship. I’ve taken to getting up at 5:30 a.m. and going for a run or finding an empty conference room to some reading or writing. I enjoy using the weight room, but like all the spaces here, it’s a challenge with so many people wanting to use it at the same time. Most of us attend Sunday night devotional even if we went to a local church earlier in the day. It’s a nice way to have fellowship and a good time to get centered.
I hope this gives a better idea of how I’m living during this time. The next time I write about “ship life,” I’ll share some of the jobs that others have on board. It really is quite interesting just who and what it takes to make this hospital work.
I have a class to teach tomorrow to some of our day crew workers so I will bid you all a good day (it’s 10 p.m. here)!
Last week I was asked to help out in the PACU (recovery room) this week while they had a transition of nurses, and of course I said yes! Since it is part of my skill set and they gave me a day of orientation, I jumped in with both feet. Isn’t that what we travel nurses are asked to do with each and every assignment – be part of the team and always give our best?
It has been great being with the patients as they wake up and experience the gratitude that they have been taken care of and will be until they leave the ship and beyond. One of my patients’ first words were, “you didn’t take my organs, I’m alive.” Yes, there are a lot of myths around what we do on Mercy Ships. The takeaway from his experience is that he will go back to his village, which is almost 70 km away, and share the good news. Word of mouth from our own patients is the best PR we could ever receive.
Yesterday one of my patients had a 13-pound lipoma (benign tumor) removed from his right quad. Can you imagine how he walked around with an additional 13 pounds protruding from his thigh? I saw it and still can’t imagine.
It hasn’t all been work here. Over the weekend I went to the local market, Bizarre Be, to do some shopping, and then on Sunday a group of us went to the Lemur Preserve. It was amazing! We saw lemurs out in the wild, a beautiful waterfall and a group of Malagasy dancers that were making a video we assumed for tourism. There is rarely a dull moment on or off the ship.
Until next time, be good to one another, live life to its fullest, and use your powers for good!
This morning in Tomatave it’s American Thanksgiving. I woke up thinking of my friends and family back home, giving thanks that I’m where I am meant to be, doing work I am meant to be doing. It truly doesn’t feel like work, but more like the service it is.
Last night I changed a bandage on my patient’s head where a tumor had been growing for 20 years. It grew exponentially in the last 3 years, causing her much distress. When I removed the bandage and drain and had her touch her head where the tumor had been, it was a moment I’ll never forget to see her face light up with the purest of smiles.
I am learning the Malagasy language and try my best not to butcher it with my clumsy American accent. The patients, day crew and I laugh often, but I continue to try my best.
Today will be my first day in PACU. They were in need of a pediatric PACU nurse, and when they asked I said yes! It’s my year of saying yes! I don’t know how long this will be my position, but for now it is what I am meant to do.
This weekend I’m looking forward to a day off ship and the opportunity to explore the area and check out the local shops and restaurants.