Sunday, August 30, 2009

finding joy.

This past week wasn't my favorite. When you live on the ship it sometimes feels as a thousands little fingers which are constantly pressing into you. Individually they are light touches (and often very small things) that aren't very noticeable. But collectively, they can feel like an iron fist punching you in the gut.

I felt like I got punched this week. My gut still hurts a bit.

On the Africa Mercy, in the daily routine of meeting deadlines and staring at my computer, I can forget I am a missionary. It's easy to lose the vision of the work we are doing, and think this is just a job. Or just an organization. And things just have to get done. I get tunneled into thinking that's what matters.

I'm reading through Daniel and it's blowing my mind. Daniel 4:34-35 is a monologue by Nebuchadnezzar, a very wicked king of Babylon,

"And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion [is] an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom [is] from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth [are] reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and [among] the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?"

I love this prayer. It reaffirms that God is Sovereign and He will have His way. He is in control. His vision is eternal and His plans reach far beyond the scope of what our minds can begin to grasp. He will accomplish His plans. He doesn't need us to do it. He is Who matters. All else fails in comparison.

It's good to be reminded of that. It lifts my head out of the cloud and chaos of all the important things in life and resets my eyes on the eternal. It's a much nicer view.

On Thursday night, in the midst of an iron-fist-to-the-gut week, I went down to the ward to see a few patients. As I walked around and saw the patients neatly tucked into their beds, heard the laughter of a four-year-old with a burnt hand (who thought everything was funny), and snuggled with a baby with a fixed cleft lip, I saw joy. I was reminded of the privilege we have on board the Africa Mercy of loving people in the name of Jesus. I was reminded that eternities are being altered.

It was a revelation that rose above a thousand little pressures and brought me back to just Jesus. A place I'd like to remain.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Liberian Children receive echocardiograms

This is a storyI recently wrote. Today Bill Martin, the hospital manager, told me the president of Liberia actaully read it (which I thought was pretty cool :).

Liberian children receive echocardiograms

Emmanuel, 14, can’t play sports with his friends.

“Sometimes if I run with a friend, I’d get behind. When I stop, I am always breathing very fast,” said Emmanuel.

He was born with a congenital heart defect that has gone uncorrected for fourteen years. Currently, Emmanuel is experiencing several signs of congestive heart failure, including shortness of breath and swelling.

Born in Liberia, Emmanuel has not had access to the medical care needed to correct his heart condition. If he doesn’t have a surgical intervention, his symptoms will continue to worsen, ultimately leading to his death.

However, Emmanuel was recently referred to Dr. James Tomarken, a Yale-Clinton Foundation Senior Fellow in International Healthcare Management, at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. Working with Mercy Ships and the Israeli-based international humanitarian project, Save a Child’s Heart, Dr. Tomarken and his associates have been able to help Liberian children with heart defects receive corrective surgery.

“Save a Child’s Heart will do the surgery if we raise the needed funds,” said Dr. Tomarken. “It’s very inexpensive; much of it is donated. There’s just a small amount to pay for,” said Dr. Tomarken. But before a patient can become a surgical candidate, the defect must be properly diagnosed. This requires an echocardiogram, a diagnostic ultrasound of the heart, which Liberia currently does not have the capacity to provide.

The Africa Mercy has both an echocardiogram machine and a physician trained to operate it. Taking advantage of a previously established partnership with Mercy Ships, Dr. Tomarken contacted the Africa Mercy’s Hospital Manager, William E. Martin, for assistance.

“Dr. Tomarken contacted me when I was in Liberia in July. He had several patients he wanted to be screened because there was a possibility they could receive open heart surgery in Israel,” said Martin.

Dr. Tomarken first partnered with Mercy Ships during the 2008 Field Service in Liberia. Mercy Ships physician, Dr. Wolfgang Edele, performed free echocardiograms for five children. “I saw five children in Liberia with the echo machine. Two of the children had successful open heart surgery,” said Dr. Edele.

This year, Dr. Tomarken had seven children in need of echocardiograms. Mercy Ships agreed to perform the tests, and the children recently came to Benin. They were accompanied by Dr. Tomarken and Liberian social worker, Chadesetta Williams. Mercy Ships provided the group with accommodations, food, and some transportation.

All seven children received echocardiograms, and the results have been sent to surgeons working with Save a Child’s Heart.

“Trying to get a diagnosis was almost impossible in Monrovia,” said Chadesetta Williams. “I thank God for Mercy Ships, and I pray they will continue to receive funding to continue with the services they are giving. It’s a very worthy cause.”
“Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) is an Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child's nationality, religion, color, gender or financial situation.” [from the Save a Child’s Heart website]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

goodbye to you.

The before shot.
It was so long.
My ponytails and I.
The cut.
The after shot.

Last week, several of my closest friends and I cut off all our hair, donating it to two organizations that make wigs for cancer patients. Over a foot of hair was removed from my head, resulting in three large, donatable ponytails. Our friend, Lorah, cut our hair for us and did a fabulous job.

For me, it was a bit of an impulsive choice, largely made in support of my friends who had shed their hair before me. I'm glad I did it, although it does take some getting use too. I've had short hair before, but I've never done such an extreme change.

Hair will always grow back.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The feeding program

A story I wrote last month....

Baby Feeding Program

Amitatau was extremely underweight when she came to the Africa Mercy. At four weeks old, she weighed only 2.3 kg, just half the average weight of babies her age. Amitatau’s uncorrected cleft lip and palate had made nursing difficult for her. As a result, she was starving.

Babies with clefts often have trouble feeding. The malformation of the mouth makes it difficult to forcefully suck, making it difficult for the baby to get enough milk. “It can be very difficult to feed babies with clefts,” said volunteer nurse Debora Saur. “Because of the hole they have in the mouth, the milk can come out of the nose. Mothers particularly have trouble breastfeeding because it’s hard for the babies to create suction. The moms and babies can really struggle.”

Breastfeeding mothers can also lose their ability to produce milk if the baby isn’t nursing properly. If this happens, some moms will attempt to feed with formula. However, many can’t afford to buy the amount of formula necessary to ensure proper nutrition. Often, the formula is watered down, and the baby does not receive the nutrition needed to develop and grow. Without intervention, these babies can die.

Amitatau’s mother felt helpless and alone when she brought her daughter to the Africa Mercy. After the baby was examined, it was determined that her clefts were correctable. However, she could not safely receive surgery until she gained weight.

Fortunately for Amitatau, Mercy Ships runs a feeding program specifically designed to help babies with clefts gain weight. It is operated by Debora Saur, who is from Germany. This is the second field service during which Saur has run the program.

The feeding program gives mothers the educational and physical resources needed to ensure their babies maintain an adequate nutritional intake. Babies typically stay on the program for three to eight months before surgery.

Initially, an appointment is scheduled on the Africa Mercy with Saur, and the needs of mother and baby are assessed. “They come, I weigh them, and I teach them how to feed the baby. I also explain why it is important for the baby to eat regularly,” said Saur.

If the mother is still lactating, Debra will encourage her to continue breastfeeding by teaching her techniques to improve the baby’s suckling ability. However, in cases where breastfeeding is not an option, Mercy Ships supplies the mother with formula. “If breastfeeding is not enough, I give them formula and carefully explain how to make it,” said Saur.

Every two weeks, mothers come to the Africa Mercy to receive formula. During every visit, the baby is weighed, and the weight is documented on a growth chart. Additionally, Saur provides emotional support to the moms. In many West African communities, babies with clefts are often viewed as cursed, and mothers are encouraged to abandon them. This worldview can further compound nursing difficulties and leave mothers feeling very alone.

“Often the community will think the baby is cursed because it is born with something that is not normal. It can be very difficult to for a mom to live in her community with that pressure,” said Saur. “I think it’s important for them to know that someone cares, and there is a place that they can always come to – they are not alone. I think it makes a difference.”

Already, Debora has seen several babies successfully gain weight and receive free surgery. “Last year I had a baby in Liberia who came at the beginning of the outreach. She was really small when she came. After going through the feeding program, she was able to have cleft lip/palate surgically corrected. It was really exciting,” said Saur.

The feeding program will continue throughout the duration of the 2009 Benin Field Service.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Togonese Refugee Camp

Richard and I walking through the refugee camp. We look like journalists :)

Last weekend my friend Jess, who is the Dental Team Coordinator, told me about a special clinic the dental team was holding in a refugee camp. I was able to visit the camp on Friday.

I was surprised and a bit confused to learn their was a Togonese refugee camp in Benin. Togo is a bordering country and the location of the next field service. To my knowledge, things were relatively stable. It wasn't unstable like Liberia, which had just ended a 14 year civil war.

At the camp, I learned the full story. Four years ago the president of Togo died. He had served as president for 38 years. After his death, his son commandeered the presidency. The refugees were a part of the political party that opposed the son, seeing it as an undemocratic election. Initially, there was over 12,000 refugees living in the camp. Today, four years later, 3,000 still live there. Many still have not received papers from the Red Cross that officially declare them refugees, which has bound them to the camp. They can't leave or work without that status.

The camp possessed a certain beauty, despite being what the developed word would consider extremely poor living conditions. It was very clean, flowers were planted on people's "patios", and their was even a few art displays. Everyone took pride in what had become their home. You could see it.

My friend Richard and I were given a tour by a women who lives in the camp with her family. She took us to her "house" and we sat and talked with her and her husband. Richard asked if they had any plans to leave the camp and return to Togo. They told us the answer depended upon the outcome of the Presidential election taking place in Togo in February. If the elections were democratic, they would return. If not, on principle, they would stay in the camp.

I was amazed by their conviction. They believed what was happening in their government was wrong, and they were willing to risk their lives for it. I was also quite humbled. I waste so much time worrying about the future, who I am going to be and what I am going to accomplish. They don't even get to have those dreams. They have a glimmer of hope that they will return to their country in February. If not, they will be stuck in the camp. There are no other dreams to be had.

A line in a Cross Movement song says, "Are you ready to do in the name of Truth, what the world might do for a lie."

I look at the sacrifice of that family for a political belief. Something far less superior to an eternal destiny. And I wonder, would I make that sacrifice for the sake of Truth?

Photos of the camp here

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Article on the True Campaign

In the past, I have some very definitive struggles with body image. I've been unable to believe that I am beautiful. I've wrestled with trying to be perfect. I've wrestled with the holistic pressure (even among Christians) to be a sexy, aggressive female. I've gone to over 30 weddings and wondered why they got picked and I didn't. I've thought maybe I've been doing things all wrong. Maybe I should change who I am for the sake of everyone else. For the sake of what I "should"be.

But last year, for the first time, I finally began to grasp something: I am precious. Precious to God, precious to others. Those three words, a very simple revelation, have (and still are) changing the way I think about myself, God, and others.

In response to this revelation and accompanying new found courage, I created the Unbranded Beauty Project, which highlights women who I KNOW are beautiful. They are as unique and different as the facets of their Creator.

I emailed the True Campaign the blog and they put it on their website. There is a podcast coming of a few of the women I photographed/interviewed and I discussing what real beauty is.

I recently wrote a story about Edith and I have to admit I had them in mind while writing it. Yesterday they posted it on their blog.

I so appreciate what they are doing and I feel really blessed to be a part of it. As I daily learn and at times struggle to believe I am precious to God, I think it would be beautiful to help other women believe the same thing about themselves.

Friday, August 21, 2009

the wind in my hair.

Team waterfall.
Soccer in the mist.
The beautiful misty mountains.
My first zimmiejohn ride :)
Mountain Meg.
Clay villages.
The first waterfall.

Last weekend I was part of a group of 17 that took a 7 hour bus ride to Togo, a country bordering Benin, for the weekend.

My life is an adventure and I like it that way.

We left at 3:45 Friday morning (which obviously wasn't my idea) and arrived at our "hotel" around 12 pm. It was the typical cram-a-bunch-of-people-into-a-small-mini-bus arrangement. Never comfortable, but what makes it a good story. I might mention that traveling in West Africa isn't for high maintenance personalities.

On Saturday we climbed Mount Agou, the highest mountain in Togo. The hike was tough but the scenery was so beautiful, it was completely worth it. The red clay villages nestled into the deep green mountains, which where covered in a dream-like fog, ought to be experienced rather than described. As we hiked through the greenery, we were surrounded by children with beautiful smiles and an unbelievable number of baby goats. About five minutes into the hike, my entire body was covered in sweat and mud. I adopted the title of "Mountain Meg" as I really looked like a ridiculous mountain woman.

That evening, a small group of us went to an amazing waterfall. It was the first time I ever stood under a waterfall, and I've decided, it's impossible to do so without letting out a girlish shriek. There is just something about the rush of the cold current that forces it out of you.

Sunday morning, half the group went home and the rest were tired, which left only six of us ready and able for hike #2 (also know as Team Waterfall). Because our vehicle had left with the group of returnees, we could only reach the base of the trail by riding on zimmiejohns (aka motorbikes) up the mountain. I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't nervous. In fact, I clung to my driver for the entire 20 minutes. But it was an amazing experience. The morning light magnificently illuminated the green mountains which were scattered with red-clay villages and winding yellow-dirt roads. The wind ferociously whipped through my hair giving me a sense of tremendous freedom. Everything about the experience was beautiful (although maybe not completely safe :) .

The hike was hard, but the friends I was with made it amazingly fun (my friends Kristian and Bowie marched along playing a recorder and harmonica..brilliant :). We walked through mountain villages, found plants that turn into paint (I was given a red butterfly tattoo), and stopped at a mist covered feild to play soccer with a half-inflated ball and some local boys. When in life do you ever get to do those things? Really?

The waterfall was our goal and we were not disappointed. It was perfectly nestled in a cove of green leaves and tiny purple flowers. The sun peaked through the dense shrubbery onto the powerful, white waters. We were able to climb up underneath the falls onto a rock and watch the water spill over our faces. It was amazing.

We decided not to hike back to the start of the trail, but instead, hired zimmiejohns to take us all the way down the mountain. The ride was about 30 minutes and beautiful in every way. We had to stop an wait for two of our friends at the halfway point. My friends Liz, Jess, Richard, and I, sat on a bench on the side of the mountain amazed at the adventure our lives had become. We were climbing mountains, playing in waterfalls, and riding motor bikes on dirt roads. Our bodies were covered in sweat and dirt, our legs sore, and our feet blistered, but no one would have chosen any other way. We were really living.

Our lives looked very different from the 9 to 5 pace of normal. No one was married. No one owned a home. Our banks account are growing more depleted with every month we live on the ship. None of us are certain what we are doing in January. But we would not have changed a thing.

As much as I love a good pair of heels and a fun dress, going out to dinner will never beat out playing in a waterfall with a few lovely friends.

I love feeling the wind in my hair. I love living with a sense of expectancy and adventure. I love that God has called me to be here and to have these moments. A good friend once told me that being a Christian is an adventure. She was right. It's the best adventure I've ever been on. I can't wait to see what happens next.
more photos here

Thursday, August 20, 2009

my heart is happiest when...

....I am holding a beautiful sweet baby like this one. I'm certain you can see it in my face.

I posted Maomai's rather amazing story last week. I can happily say she is doing really well. Today, she had her G tube removed and her cheeks have grown very plump. I was able to see her today and she was screaming through the hallway. I enjoyed hearing her cry because it was the hearty, solid cry of a healthy baby. A noise she couldn't make two months ago.

It's amazing to see a transformation like that occur and a huge blessing to in some way take part. But the best part for me is simply that I got to sooth her when she cried :)

I'm online

Last time I was on the Africa Mercy, I wrote monthly for the Advance for Nurses magazine about my experiences. My editor, Gail, is absolutely lovely, and I was blessed to acquire a friend in her.

Every year, the magazine highlights nurses from around the area for a special "Essence of Nursing" edition. I was really honored when Gail asked to interview and include me in the issue.

It was posted today and you can click the link to read it below.

Advance for Nurses: Africa Calls

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A weekend in Togo

Team waterfall. My favorite photo of the weekend. This waterfall was unrealistically beautiful.
My first zimmijohn ride. Notice how tight I am clutching the driver :)
I was on this zimmijohn...riding through the mountains was AMAZING!!
The water on our shirts is all sweat. All things considered, I think we look pretty cute :)
I was so happy they brought their instruments.

me pretending to fall off the mountain.

Ali and I...fellow northeastern PICU nurses.
Bowie borrowed a man's Fanmilk bike. And it was amazing.
Isn't she cute?
We stumbled upon some boys playing soccer on our hike to the waterfall and Kristian and Richard joined in.


Me actually falling (and quite hard I might add).

One of the beautiful villages.
I loved these flowers.
The views were breathtaking.

The start of the mountain hike.

I spent the past weekend climbing mountains and swimming in waterfalls, in the beautiful country of Togo. It's after midnight and I need to go to bed, so I won't go into details right now. The short version: Fellowship and friendship are precious gifts, simple things are the most beautiful, the wind always feels nice in your hair, and being a Christian is a wonderful adventure.

I leave you with a few of my favorite photos....
you can view the rest here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Maomai Dangbenon: Salvation Has Come

Another patient story I recently finished....I love this baby : )

Maomai Dangbenon: Salvation Has Come

It was the middle of the night, and Perlagie couldn’t sleep. The image of Maomai, her three-month-old baby girl, flashed through her mind every time she closed her eyes. A huge tumor the size of the baby’s head was jutting out of Maomai’s neck. Perlagie looked over at her daughter, peacefully sleeping in her hospital bed, and began to cry.

For over a week, Perlagie had stayed in the hospital, waiting and praying for a doctor to help Maomai – but no one came. In the morning, they were being sent home. Perlagie didn’t know what to do.

When Perlagie finally fell asleep, she had a dream.

“In that dream, I saw a person, who told me I should be quiet and pray – that salvation shall come.”

The next morning, Perlagie felt confident and peaceful. She didn’t know where help would come from, but she knew God was going to take care of her baby.


Maomai was born with a teratoma, which means monstrous tumor. It started out as a small, golf-ball sized lump on her neck, but within three months, the tumor had grown to the size of her head.

Everyone in Perlagie’s village was afraid of Maomai. The grotesque tumor was difficult to look at, and the villagers thought they could be contaminated by it. No one would touch or play with the small baby.

“One time I was in the bathroom, and the baby was crying. People were around the baby, but they would not touch her because of the tumor. They left her crying, alone. Even the members of my family,” said Perlagie.

Perlagie was alone. Maomai was a precious, beautiful baby girl, and she could see that, but others simply couldn’t see past the monstrous tumor. In a country where perceived physical differences mark people as outcasts, Maomai was treated like a monster instead of a baby girl.

“I was very, very, sad. I was not able to sleep,” said Perlagie. “Every day, I was crying. Also, I was not eating. I had no appetite because of the condition of my baby.”

Perlagie and her husband wanted to get Maomia help. They took her to a local hospital, but there was no surgeon to perform her surgery. Perlagie didn’t become anxious or fearful. She confidently left the hospital, trusting God to bring healing and deliverance from the tumor.

When Perlagie returned to her village, her sister-in-law told her about the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship filled with doctors and nurses, which had come to Cotonou. She had just returned from the ship after being treated for an eye problem and thought they could help Maomai.

Perlagie brought her daughter to the Africa Mercy and was screened by the medical team. It was obvious that she needed immediate surgery. But the tumor had made it difficult for her to feed, and Maomai was very underweight – too underweight for surgery. The Mercy Ships medical team placed her on a feeding program and scheduled her for surgery in one month. Mercy was on its way. The salvation Perlagie had dreamed of was becoming a reality.

A month passed, and it was time for Maomai’s surgery. The morning of surgery, Peralgie worried it would not be successful.

“I started crying. Some nurses and translators told me the operation was possible with God. The doctor will be successful with surgery, the tumor will be removed, and the baby will be healed. They gave me that hope,” said Perlagie.

After six hours of surgery, Maomai’s tumor was removed. It weighed 375 grams, 15% of her body weight. The monstrous tumor was gone, and the beautiful baby girl remained.

Maomai spent over a month recovering in the hospital. Still struggling to maintain her weight, she had to be fed through a surgically placed feeding tube.

The nursing staff encouraged Perlagie to use the feeding tube. At first, she was hesitant. Perlagie distanced herself from Maomai. But as she grew more comfortable in the hospital, things changed. The nursing staff taught Perlagie how to use the feeding tube. As she took ownership of Maomai’s care, their relationship thrived.

“Initially, we were worried about her,” said pediatric nurse Ali Chandra. “But now she’s been here for over a month, and she’s blossomed. Perlagie has completely bonded with Maomai in the time they’ve been here. And it happened as we started teaching her [to use the feeding tube]. She’s doing really well,” says Chandra.

Maomai has continued to grow stronger since her surgery. Not only has she gained weight, she’s gained vibrancy.

“Maomai used to be this kind of listless baby, and now she’s bright. She’s doing more age-appropriate things than before,” says Chandra.

Psalm 13:5 says, “I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation” (NKJV).

Perlagie knows this to be true. She trusted God to take care of her baby, and He brought her salvation. Perlagie is rejoicing in His mercy.

“I thank God, and I thank each of you, for all you have done for me. God is healing and still working. I have seen my salvation in this child,” she concluded.