National Geographic Speaks with OR Nurse Abby Mills

Video highlights from The Surgery Ship

A look inside the life of an OR Nurse on the Mercy Ship

Abby Mills
Rushcutters Bay, NSW
OR Nurse
Served Republic of the Congo 2014, Madagascar 2014, Madagascar 2015, Benin 2017

Describe your first days on the Mercy Ship. What was it like? How did you feel?

Arriving on the ship for the first time is a very surreal feeling, especially since I had been wanting to come and work on the ship since I was a teenager. Firstly it was so hard to find my way around. I think I got lost going to my cabin the first three times. I’m terrible with directions and the ship can be confusing at times.

It’s an odd feeling to come onto the ship where everyone seems to know each other and you are the "new" person. Everyone is very welcoming though once you get brave enough to start chatting to people. It helps if you arrive at the beginning of the field service as then everyone is new and you are all "in the same boat" so to speak, and everyone is needing to make friends.

It’s also an adjustment getting used to living on a ship and having your meal times dictated to you and getting into the routine of things. There is a lot of orientation and safety briefings to get through for the ship in general then orientation to your departments. Everything is quite overwhelming the first time you come. Starting work was great and daunting because many things are done differently here on the ship and learning the processes takes time. Also working with people from many different countries with different accents and cultures is something that takes some getting used to. Especially in the operating room where communication is vital.

Working with translators to speak to your patients is also something that needs getting used to. Everything seems different at first because it is such an unusual environment but you soon get used to it. It is hard at first and can feel lonely unless you put yourself out there and make the effort to make some friends. Missing home doesn't help and especially if you are not used to living in close quarters with someone else, that can prove to be difficult to adjust to particularly if they are on a different working schedule to you. All in all though I was so excited to be here and keen to get started working with the patients and surgeons there and do the interesting cases that we get to do. It was so interesting to see all of the cases that I would never see back at home. And see the difference that you are making in the lives of the people that otherwise would not have the opportunity to get help. The privilege of being able to come and be a part of this was something that was always at the forefront of my mind.

The working environment is something that was so different to where I work at home. We pray before we start the day and everyone is there of their own accord volunteering their time, so the morale is great and everyone works together well. It is a very different working environment than the private hospital where I work at home. Also because a lot of the surgeries we are doing are life-changing or life-saving the weight of that is heavy and so significant. Its something that doesn't ever go away.

Returning to the ship after that (this is my fourth trip) for me was like coming home. Seeing my friends and surgeons again was wonderful and it sort of felt like I never left. However I do miss my friends that have left. Working in the OR again here also feels like I've never left. It’s truly a joy to be here in all ways!

What’s the food and accommodation like on the ship?

The food on the ship is always fresh and tasty. It’s a cafeteria style buffet with a hot option and salad bar at every meal as well as sandwiches if you want to make toasted sandwiches. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are supplied with the ship shop and cafe open for snacks and to buy a range of treats and coffees. There is so much food that the main problem is putting on weight. Mercy "hips" are definitely a thing!

It’s hard not to be affected by the poverty in the places the ship visits, how has it affected you?

Seeing the poverty in these places is very sobering. But the thing that affected me the most was seeing that despite their abject poverty they are still so joyful. It taught me that material things matter so little and that we can live with so much less than we in the West have and be happy. Happiness is a state of mind and not dependant on things or position or money. It makes you realise how much you take for granted, particularly free health care and the benefits we have that we don't even think about, like clean water and access to medications. It is something that hits me hard every time I travel to Africa but a lesson that I also need to keep learning as the attitudes of Western society rub off on us over time without us realising it. Seeing how simply and yet happily many people live over here is something that is you can never see enough of. It definitely helps you to put in perspective how lucky we are but also how spoilt we are, and how much we live with that we really don't need.

What’s the worst case you’ve seen thus far on the ship?

The worst case that I have seen on the ship was a woman with a massive Maxilla tumour that was on one side of her face and was growing so large that it was obliterating her airway. The tumour was bleeding even before we touched it in surgery, and when the surgeon injected local anaesthetic into it the blood started pouring out. We lost about a litre of blood before we had even started cutting the tumour. We had to transfuse about 8 units of blood into her over a 3 hour period and basically replaced her total blood volume. It was a very tense case but we succeeded in removing the tumour and went forward with the reconstruction. The woman’s life was saved as she would have bled out or suffocated if she had not had the surgery.

What does a typical day on the ship look like? And how long are your hours?

On a typical day I wake up at about 7:30am, put on my scrubs and go get some coffee from the dining room. I start work at 8am most days (on Mondays we have a ship wide meeting at 7:45 and OR devotions on Tuesday at 7:30). I usually work till about 5:30pm with a half an hour lunch break if we are lucky. If I’m on call and any operating room is running late I will go and have an early dinner at 4:45pm then go back to work until the case is finished. We are on a rotating roster to do call but when we are not on call usually our cases are finished around 5pm and we can go home.

After work I usually shower and go to dinner in the dining room or if I’m lucky off ship at a restaurant. After dinner I will chill out usually, with friends or in my cabin. Maybe watch a movie or TV show or read. Sometimes I like to do some baking in the crew galley. The ship shop sells baking ingredients. The cafe is also open after dinner so it’s nice to have coffee and chat with friends or play a game on deck 6 which is set up like a large lounge room. Or I might call home and talk to my family or friends. Then at about 10:30pm I usually go to sleep.

What do you do for fun on the ship? How do you relax?

Well it’s always fun and very relaxing to go off ship and go and eat out or get ice cream or go to the markets or beach or sightseeing. On the ship we watch movies together, or play one of the many board games or card games. Lots of cups of tea and coffee and just chatting with friends. We can play soccer or volleyball out on the dock if you like. Or there are exercise classes a couple of times a week and gym equipment to work out on. The pool on deck 8 is also fun and sunbaking is a favourite thing to do on the weekend when I’m on call and can't leave the ship. I also do a lot of reading and some baking.

What are the patients like on the ship?

The patients on the ship are just about the best thing. I love going to the ward and visiting them after they have had their surgeries. I get to have lots of cuddles with the cleft lip babies and speak to their happy mamas. The adult patients and the parents of the kids are always so grateful and happy to chat or spend time with you. The mamas know how much we love baby cuddles so will always let you have a play with the babies. The kids are full of beans and run around the wards making mischief. It’s so fun to be able to be a part of the patients’ lives more than just seeing them in the OR. It’s one of the things that I love the most about being here. I will often just go and hang out on the wards with my patients for a while after my shift.

What was your motivation for joining Mercy Ships?

I have always wanted to work with Mercy Ships since I was 15 years old and heard about it. I have always wanted to help the poor and that’s the main reason why I chose to do nursing. I wanted to be able to help people that had no way of helping themselves and having nursing as a skill was something that is so useful. I feel a real call to help the disadvantaged and so for me that is people who don't have access to good medical care. We are so blessed in Australia to have free access to the best medical care and we so often take it for granted. I am so happy to have found an organisation that goes to the poorest of the poor and offers free life-changing surgeries for people that otherwise would not have the chance to have them. It is definitely something that has been in my heart from a long time and I feel very privileged to be a part of Mercy Ships ministry.


Has there been a time where you’ve felt you were in danger? If so tell me about it.

No, I don't think I have ever felt in particular danger any time I have served either when I’m on board or off the ship. You just have to constantly be aware of things and don't do silly things or go out alone. It’s just common sense things really that help you when you are travelling in a developing nation, but I have never felt unsafe. The ship has an amazing team of Gurkhas that look after us very well.

Is there a particular case that has really struck a chord for you?

There have been many. But the Noma cases are always great because these patients go from not having noses to having a reconstructed face and to see their joy is amazing. Also Sambany was a wonderful case. He was a lovely man in his 60's who had a 12kg tumour removed from his neck. The tumour was bigger than his head and he had had it for years and years. He was transformed when it was removed and he was told that he may not survive the surgery but he said "I'm dead already, just do it". He survived and went home to his wife and what will hopefully be a long and happy life. I will never forget Sambany and so many others.

Do you have any final words for those thinking of joining the Mercy Ship family?

Just do it! It will change your life, and it is the most worthwhile thing I have ever done! Take the leap of faith and come!!

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