Friday, July 31, 2009

the feeding program

Cleft lip/palate repairs are hands down my favorite surgery on the ship. I am always amazed that in only a few hours, we can completely transform a life.
Babies with clefts often have difficulties feeding. As a result, many are underweight-too underweight for surgery. Mercy Ships has a feeding program to help these kids get big enough for surgery. Mother's are given formula and routinely come to the ship to have the babies weighed.
Today I took some photos of Deb, who runs the program, and a beautiful little girl, Amitatou. She is scheduled for surgery in September. The baby is doing well and is ridiculously beautiful. I can happily say we got some quality snuggle time in.
Sadly, kids with clefts are often thought to be cursed. People don't touch or talk to them. Many are completely abandoned. Recently, a baby who had received cleft surgery on the ship, died two weeks after discharge. The cause of death was uncertain, but speculation pointed to the baby being abandoned. Even after surgery. Old beliefs have that much of a stronghold.
Whenever I am around a cleft baby, I make an extra point to dote and call it beautiful. I think it must do the mother's heart good to see people love her 'unlovable' baby.
The mama I met today was a good mama. I watched her eyes shine as she stared at Amitatau and made her coo and laugh. It was beautiful.
It took courage for her to love her baby. That might sound strange, but it's true. I'm sure people have isolated and teased her for loving her baby. They might have even called her cursed. Even her closest friends and family.
But she is still making Amitatau smile, loving her rejected baby.
I can't wait until September when she gets her surgery.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

in my head

I just can't get this song, by Kari Jobe, out of my head. I think I've listened to it fifty times in the past four weeks and it continues to make me cry.

It's just so true.

This week is my tenth anniversary of knowing Jesus. I love looking back at what He has done with my life. It's beautiful.

All I can really say is He is faithful and I know He loves me. There is nothing else to add to the story.

I know that He is for me. And if He is for me, if He loves me, what else could ever matter?

Kari Jobe-You are for me

So faithful
So constant
So loving and so true
So powerful in all you do

You fill me
You see me
You know my every move
You love for me to sing to you

I know that you are for me
I know that you are for me
I know that you will never forsake me in my weakness
I know that you have come down
Even if to write upon my heart
To remind me who you are

So patient
So gracious
So merciful and true wonderful in all you do

You fill me
You see me
You know my every move
You love for me to sing to you

I know that you are for me
I know that you are for me
I know that you will never forsake me in my weakness

I know that you have come down
Even if to write upon my heart
To remind me that

I know that you are for me
I know that you are for me
I know that you will never forsake me in my weakness
I know that you have come down
Even if to write upon my heart
To remind me who you are

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

you must have been a beauitful baby

This little girl recently came to the ward. She needs to have her cleft lip repaired, but is currently too underweight for the operation. The nurses are now monitoring her feeding regimen, in hopes that she will soon gain the needed weight.

I really can't describe how beautiful she is. I think I could spend an entire day just holding her.

Monday, July 27, 2009


One of the great things about working in communications is that I get to see many different Mercy Ships programs (as well as free access to the ward, where I am able to get my baby-holding fix :)

Currently, Mercy Ships has several land-based programs which focus on improving the health care infrastructure of Benin. One of these programs is the Administrative Training Program. It's a three months course in which employees from local hospitals are paired with mentor/trainers from Mercy Ships. They learn about leadership, conflict resolution, and several basic computer programs. Simple things most of us take for granted.

On Friday, a graduation ceremony was held for four graduates who had completed the program. I was the photographer.

The graduation was held in the Queens lounge, the on-ship 'fancy' room used for such occasions. I sat at a table in the back, next to and his wife.

After the formality speeches were completed, Brenda, who runs the program, said a few words about each graduate. When she came to Euloge, she mentioned how much his confidence had improved during the three months. As she spoke, I watched Euloge try to hold the tears forming in the corners of his eyes backs. Eventually he cracked, and the tears rolled done his cheeks.

I didn't expect to get emotional at the graduation, but I almost joined him.

'Confidence' had cued his tears. I wonder what his insecurities and frustrations had been. I wonder how long he had judged himself by his inadequacies. I wonder how many things he didn't try because he was afraid of failing. I wonder how many wrong things he thought about himself.

I knew what he was feeling. I've felt it too.

But the beautiful part is the tears. The gentle breaking of the chain of self-doubt. His eyes attested to the fact that he'd gained much more than clerical skills over the past three months.

We all have insecurities. I think we need to remember that. Perhaps we'd be more likely to come along side of one another. To be that friend that sticks closer than a brother. We all need them.

Mercy Ships had been that friend to Euloge. And it really meant something to him.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

How I got here...

On the ship, it's always interesting (and often beauitful) to hear what made someone decide to live on a hospital ship in West Africa.

I just had to write a prelude to my book (yea :), detailing just that. This is how I got here. ANd I'm glad about it.


I've had a interest in missions since I was a little girl. For example, in third grade, my best friend and I had to make a video about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Our choice was missionary (the video is really funny...Hollie was the missionary and I was the 'native'. While I am praying the sinners prayer, I begin picking my nose..classic). A missionary had come to my third grade classroom and talked about the work she did in Africa. It had sparekd my interest.

I choose nursing as a career because I was interested in medical missions. I didn't know where or how I would serve, but I knew I wanted to help people. I graduated from Bucks County Community College in May 2005, with an associates degree in nursing. Attending community college allowed me to graduate with no debt, which was important if I wanted to do mission work. My job at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia didn't begin until September, giving me the summer off.

That summer, God was moving in my heart. I realized, if I wanted, the next 40 years of my life could be planned. I was a nurse. I could make money. I would be helping sick children. It was an admirable job. But something in me was terrified. I knew I wanted more, but I didn't know what.

In July, I went through a two week period where God lead me to fervently read through the entire New Testament in. As I read, I heard the Spirit of God whispering in my ear, "Do you really believe this?" The words on the pages were radical. They talked of investing into eternity. Of not storing treasures or obtaining accolades on earth, but through faith, living as a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.

Words come so easy. And so many Christians use words. I wanted the world to see what I believed.

It was challenging. I knew in my heart, that God was calling me to live outside of the carefully delineated life pattern prescribed to the average 20-something (you know, get a job, a nice car, a spouse, a house, a few kids, ect...). And regardless of how I searched, I couldn't find the picket-fence-2.5-kid promise anywhere in the Bible.

All summer, my former youth pastor, Rob Paoletti, had been telling about Mercy Ships. His friend, Scott Harrison, was a photo-journalist on the ship. He recommended I checked out his blog. After blowing it off all summer, I finally Googled "Mercy Ships," and found Scott's blog.

I'll never forget that moment.

As I sat in front of my computer, I wept. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Kids who were unnecessarily blind. Adults with huge facial tumors. Women leaking urine from old birth injuries. No one deserved to live like that. The after photos made me cry harder. The transformations that took place were astounding. And they weren't just physical. You could see the hollowness in their eyes replaced with joy. It was beautiful.

A month later, I went to New York City to see the exhibit 'Mercy', by Scott Harrison. I came home that night, and told my parents I was going to live on a hospital ship in West Africa. I hadn't worked a day as a nurse yet, but I was going. My parents weren't to sure if I was serious. But two years later, I was on a plane headed for Liberia, for a year of service on the Africa Mercy. So I guess I meant it.

Friday, July 24, 2009


This is a Maomai. She is a little baby I am writing a story on. She was born with a tumor called a teratoma. It started out as a small lump, and grew to the size of her head by the time she was three months old.

Her 'before' photo was horrific.

In June, the tumor was removed. It weighed 375 grams; 15% of her 2.5 kg body.

She's doing very well. She even left the hospital last week.

Isn't she too cute? You'd never know two months ago she had a tumor the size of her head jutting out of her neck.
When I interviewed her mother, she said this,

"I thank God, and I thank each of you, the nurses and the doctors on this ship, for all they have done for me. I pray that God will make them strong, and that God will take care of their families that they left to be here to work for us in Benin. Thank you very much!"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the sweetest thing....

Today I found myself alone in a room with a few Benin women. They spoke French, and I didn't. It makes it a bit harder to strike up a conversation.

Fortunately for me, there were two kids in the room also. Kids speak the universal language of funny faces and smiles, so communicating with them wasn't a problem.

The little girls name was Renee. I'm guessing she was around the age of four.

At first, Renee was a little hesitant about being my friend. But she quickly ended up in my lap. As I held her, she fell asleep in my arms.

There were five minutes of my 12 hour shifts, which defined the reason I became a pediatric nurse. They were the five minutes when I wasn't giving a medication, changing a bed, or looking for a doctor. They were the times when I simply got to care for my patients. Whether it was rubbing a pre-schoolers forehead as they fell asleep, or singing a lullaby to a baby, it was always the most beautiful part of the day.

Some of our kids didn't have parents. No one came tuck them in at night. Nurses become the substitute moms.

I'm sure if Jesus were on earth, He'd be tucking them in at night. To do so in His stead, was an amazing privilege.

Even though I'm currently not working as a peds nurse, I still love children. Today, one fell asleep in my arms. I was able to capture a piece of those sacred five minutes.

It's really the sweetest thing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

blind siblings

My first week here, I went on a three day trip with communications a few hours north. Our team went to the homes of several patients who received surgery earlier in the outreach.

Three of those patients were siblings; Alexis, 7, Nadege, 3, and Ricardo, the baby. All were born with blinding cataracts. None of the children could see.

This spring, all three had their cataracts removed on the Africa Mercy. And now, for the first time, they can all see. You can read the full story here.

These are a few photos I took of the kids in their home. Aren't they just beautiful children???
There are more photos here

It was really exciting for me to see patients in their everyday lives. I am use to seeing them as patients. I always had to imagine the part where their everyday lives were changed.

In the hospital, we see the dramatic, life-altering, non-ignorable change. But at their homes, it more subtle. It's a child walking out of a doorway alone, or playing with a balloon. It's a mother looking her baby in the eyes, and seeing eyes stare back. It's a father who can stretch out his arms to hug his little girl, and find her hugging her back.
It's beautiful.

Friday, July 17, 2009

kids in the village

One of my jobs while I was away last week, was to keep the village kids quiet while the patients we were there to see were being interviewed.

Although I don't speak French, because kids are so universal, that we were able to have fun beyond the language barrier. I even taught the kids to play ring-around-the-rosie.

They all wanted to have their picture taken, and as a result, my memory card contained plenty of images of their smiles. These are a few of my favorite.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"a tragedy of huge proportionas."

Last night I was hit with a pang of homesickness.

It was after dinner, and I wasn't really in the mood to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be with someone (there is a big difference between talking to and being with a person). The thought of sitting on my comfy couch, with my mom and a fresh-brewed cup of coffee, nearly made me cry.

I've had a lovely time here so far. I've reunited with handfuls of old friends, and met plenty of lovely new faces. In some ways, it feels as if I never left. But truthfully, I've only been displaced from Bucks County for a week and half. Pangs of homesickness are to be expected.

I've been re-reading The Knowledge of The Holy by A.W. Tozer. I found this paragraph beautiful and true,

" 'He hath set eternity in their heart,' said the Preacher, and I think here He sets forth both the glory and misery of men. To be made for eternity and forced to dwell in time is for mankind a tragedy of huge proportions. All within us cries for life and permanence, and everything around us reminds us of mortality and change. Yet that God has made us of the stuff of eternity is both a glory yet to be realized and a prophecy yet to be fulfilled."

I don't think we were made to change. We were made in the image and likeness of God and He is unchanging. Likewise, being made in His image, we can conclude we also were made to be unchanging.

If sin hadn't entered the world, I don't believe change would have either. Sin brought death, death brought man under the grips of time. Our eternity was chained. No longer would we infinitely dwell with God. Instead, we'd would measure ourselves by moments, hours, and years. Landmarks which would remind us of the false glory of how things were and make us anxious for what tomorrow may bring. Our unchanging nature now lived in world in which all things were progressing from life to death. Always changing.

Not being created for change, it makes sense that apprehension and some measure if discomfort accompany every change. Even changes we like.

The remedy? To bury ourselves in the Unchanging One and let our hearts long for eternity.
To be hopeful and assured of, "A glory yet to be realized and a prophecy yet to be fulfilled".

already? :)

Last year, whenever I gave a presentation about Mercy Ships, I always talked about Musu. Musu was one of my most memorable patients. She was sassy, mischievous, and had the most beautiful smile. After spending two months on the ward, Musu and I became very good friends.

Musus had two standard greetings which I heard every time I walked into the ward. The first, "Oh Meggee, you will marry my brother." The second, "Meggee, your butt is big. It is fine" (this of course was accompanied with hand motions). Regardless of how many times I explained to Musu that American girls don't like to hear they have big butts, she never stopped. In her mind, she was giving me a compliment.

Today, I was in the wards collecting information for a patient story. My very fun-fellow peds nurse/north easterner friend Ali was working in the ward. Last year, Ali and I had the distinct privilege of having a ward dance party, in which one of our patients (Milton, "The Reverend") told us we danced like Micheal Jackson. With authority, I can say it was a crowning moment for us both.

Perhaps Ali and I give off a dance party aura. Today, I was in the ward for no longer than three minute, when I found myself immersed in a spontaneous dance party that consisted of Ali, myself, and two of the moms. I guess dancing is a universal language.

The dance party started off by a comment on the size of Ali's backside, and then moved on to comment on mine. It's only been a week and a half, and I've already had a West African communicate to me that I have a large backside. And the moms didn't even speak English.

It makes me laugh. And I love to laugh.

You should read Ali's account.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I spent the second half of last week, three hours up north, in the town of Abomey.

Despite the very bumpy road, I was so jet lagged, that I manged to sleep for a good portion of the ride up Wednesday morning. When I wasn't sleeping, Eileen, our videographer, filled me in on the patients we were visiting.

The first patient we visited was a 14-year-old girl, named Edith. When Edith was 12, a fast-growing facial tumor overtook her face, threatening her life. A local missionary couple paid for Edith to have surgery at a local hospital. Her surgeon was an ears, nose, and throat specialist, with no maxillo-facial or plastics experience. He removed the tumor, saving Ediths life, but left her extremely disfigured. When Edith awoke from surgery, her right eye was permanently closed, along with half her nose and mouth. She was horrified when she looked in the mirror. She spent the next two years hiding in her house, completely isolated from her village.

You would have never known that on Wednesday.

The same couple who sponsored Edith's first surgery, heard of Mercy Ships, and made sure Edith came to the screening in February. Edith received reconstructive surgery on the Africa Mercy. Her face isn't "perfect", but both her eyes and nostrils are opened, and she looks remarkably better than before.

Most importantly, Edith is no longer hiding in her room. She's again a part of her village. Recently, she even took first in her class at school.

Edith is beautiful and has a gentle and sweet spirit. While being interviewed by the videographer, she broke down crying midway. The entire village had gathered around her to watch and the attention made her uncomfortable. So she cried.

When she wasn't being interviewed, Edith insisted on having her little brother in her arms. It was beautiful to watch her gently sooth and care for him. Her compassionate heart shined.

Seeing Edith in her village added a new dimension to the spectrum in which I view our patients. On the ward, it was hard to imagine my patients in their homes with, their families, living their day to day lives. As a nurse, I was a part of a crisis period, far removed from daily living.

But in the villages, I gained a small glimpse into their worlds. I saw the direct impact and dramatic change Mercy Ships is having in the lives of daily life individuals.

The most powerful part of our patients transformation is never physical.

The most powerful part is the new found sparkle in their eyes, the joy in their smiles, and the confidence which being loved brings.

Giving someone free surgery is such a powerful way to demonstrate God's love. I'm sure the Father's heart is delighted when Edith smiles.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

simple things

A little over a week ago I was sitting in my home in Bucks County, drinking coffee in the evening, while watching my dogs chase a Frisbee around my backyard.

Now, I am sitting in an office at 1 AM, in front of a wall of clocks which display the time in various sectors of the world, while noticing the ships gentle sway. Already, the green grass of my backyard seems a long way gone.

I spent the past three days in the northern part of Benin, about three hours away from the Africa Mercy. I was documenting the beautiful ending of four patients who received surgery on the Africa Mercy.

While up north, our team stayed at a beautiful, clean orphanage, which is currently home to about 40 children. I had a little room with blue walls, a small wooden bed dressed with a faded floral sheet (there was no pillow), and a fan that didn't work. One fluorescent light lit up the room, but only after 7pm when the generators went on. There was a small bathroom with a shower head (I was very grateful for this) and I bucket I filled with water to flush the toilet. At night, I left one screened window open and hid underneath a mosquito net.

To the average westerner, this probably doesn't sound beautiful or appealing.

But my window faced the courtyard of the orphanage. Every night I went to bed hearing the voices of the children laughing and singing. Every morning, I awoke to the chattering of enegergetic little voices.

What could be more beautiful?

I read this today and felt it's poignancy,

"Secularism, materialism, and the intrusive presence of things have put out the light in our souls and turned us into a generation of zombies. We cover our deep ignorance with words, but we are ashamed to wonder, we are afraid whisper 'mystery'. "

A.W. Tozer The Knowledge of the Holy

There is something about being here that awakens that sense of mystery and grants my soul the freedom to marvel at the simple things. The laughter of a child. The way the wind feels on your face on hazy evening. The mystery in someones eyes. Things I don't often have time to notice when I'm home.

Amazing things happen when our minds are freed from the clutter of the material and the chatter of the proud. They are given the space to wonder at God and meditate on His Majesty.

There is nothing more beautiful in heaven or earth.

I love having the space to wonder. I love thinking about the mystery.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

off and running

I've been in Benin for four days. It feels like it's been a few weeks.

Although I still am not sleeping well, the transition back to ship life has been relatively easy. I'm blessed to have a few handfuls of friends already on board, and have met some really lovely new (to me) crew.

Benin is not war torn. There are no UN soldiers (at least none that I've seen). When you walk onto the street, tension doesn't hit you along with the humidity. There is electricity, hotels with nice pools, and today I even went through a fully functional toll booth. It's very different than Liberia. However, unchanged is the need for health care services. The mass majority here have no access to medical care. The needs are great, and the OR schedule is full.

I've spent my first two days at working in communications, and am learning what will be expected of me as a writer. My eyes are adjusting to the computer screen and backside is adjusting to hours in an office chair (nurses never have time to sit :) . It's going to take a few weeks to find the pulse of my new position (you like that nursing innuendo?), but once I find it, I think I'm really going to enjoy it. My job still requires me to spend a fair amount of time on the ward. I'll still be getting my daily dose of cute kids and have regular opportunities to talk about "nurse things".

Tomorrow I'm traveling up north for three days, to document several patients who have had various surgeries.

It's definitely been a running start, but I prefer to be busy rather than bored.

But I do expect to sleep soundly this weekend.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

strangely normal

After 30 hours of traveling I safely arrived on board the Africa mercy on Friday night.

I don't know how I expected things to be, I they have been strangely normal. Nothing feels different or out of place- I just live on a hospital ship again (that's normal, right?).

However, I am enjoy my spacious (a very relative term) four berth cabin. I have to cupboards all to myself and even a sitting area. I suppose I'm moving up in the world :)

I've spent the weekend catching up with old friends, and was even able to celebrate the fourth of July at the US embassy in Benin. It's been lovely to see so many familiar faces.

Tomorrow, I start my job in communications. I admit to being a little nervous, but I think I'm really going to enjoy working there and I always love a challenge. And I don't have to work any more night shifts :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Goodbye Philadelphia

It's hard to believe, but I am off again. My life is packed in two (very heavy) duffel bags, and my passport is in my pocket.

It will only take two flights (Philly to Paris, Paris to Benin) and 24 hours to transport me to a world entirely different from my own. There is just something so strange about that. I'll never quite wrap my head around it.

But here I go, the adventure continues...