Mercy Ships and Torres Strait Islands
Well known local Nursing Sister
Sometimes we may not appreciate what we have – but Australia is one of the luckiest countries of the world and to live here gives us as individuals a lucky life.
Whilst we may complain about the conditions under which we live – think for a minute what it would be like to live in a third world country and how our life may be different.
One of the greatest problems affecting people living in third world countries is the lack of available health care. Health care infrastructure is either substandard or non-existent.
Many people in developing countries cannot get simple health care. To help those developing countries an organisation called “Mercy Ships” mobilises people with medical backgrounds world- wide and equips a ship as a floating hospital to travel to those developing countries. This organisation was established in 1978 and now has a fleet of ships travelling to various parts of the world. Once in a port the ships crew begin their very important work.
Highly skilled surgeons perform thousands of operations each year free of charge to correct disability, disfigurement and blindness. All volunteers not only work for nothing but also pay their own way whilst on board the Mercy Ship.
The organisation also establishes hospital, medical centres, training facilities and basic housing where none previously existed. Vaccination programme, basic medical and dental treatments are provided free of charge.
Local community health workers receive training in hygiene, nutrition and disease prevention. Training is given in farming methods to boost production and with help in replacing livestock lost in war torn areas.
Nine years ago I volunteered my services as a Registered Nurse on board “Anastasis”, one of the Mercy Ships which docked at Benin, a poor West African country between Toga and Nigeria.
I worked in the eye area for this three month outreach.
Another nurse and I helped to look after the screening of the thousands of African people outside the stadium before they were escorted to the ophthalmologist and team inside. Many had to be turned away, because we were doing mainly cataract surgery and not corneal grafting. If the person wished, they could be taken to a prayer station, and this helped to ameliorate their sense of rejection that we could not help them. Mercy Ships is run on Christian principles. It was not only eyes that were treated by staff, but orthopaedic work, correcting burns deformities, removal of disfiguring benign tumours, correcting obstetric fistulas, and other general work. The surgeons would volunteer a few weeks of their time from the USA or UK. The forty-four bed ward was staffed by volunteers from many different countries, and total number of ship volunteers was about 135. They were mainly Americans, and Australians were nine. Currently there is only one flag ship, the “Africa Mercy”, which was a Norwegian rail ferry before being converted into an eighty-four bed hospital and the accommodation and infrastructure to house the volunteers.
By keeping computer data of the visual acuity before surgery then afterwards, we could see that the vast majority had their vision improved. This was helpful research for the ophthalmologist as well as the health team on board ship. It was a busy but rewarding time and so satisfying to see the tangible difference that Mercy Ships could make to their lives.
On my return to Australia I commenced specialized training in rural and isolated nursing.
After being asked to be a marker for the next cohort of students, I was seconded on a regular basis to many small rural hospitals around Queensland. This was invaluable experience to then work in indigenous communities in the state. In 2008 I was requested to spear-head regular relief for the nurses on the outer islands of Torres Strait.
Since then, most of my relief nursing work has been in isolated posts on the Torres Strait outer islands or else the remote Aboriginal communities on Cape York. Occasionally I deliver babies either opportunistically or at a rural hospital to keep up my midwifery skills. The senior position I hold allows me to have a fair degree of autonomy in patient care, and I use an up-to-date specialised clinical manual to maintain high standards. The doctors are a phone call away at Thursday Island, which has the only hospital in the Torres, and visit the health centres every three weeks or so. I find it satisfying work, and a lot of my nursing is preventative focus and maintaining the health of the indigenous community before it becomes a problem.
Social life is what you make it, but you are never really ‘off duty’. Respect of person and listening are vital ingredients to earning the trust of the people.