We Interviewed Mercy Ships Volunteer Megan

Video highlights from The Surgery Ship

Paediatric Nurse, Megan Santifort talks about life on the Mercy Ship

Megan Santifort
Malabar, NSW
Paediatric Ward Nurse
Served Benin 2017

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

The first days on the ship were a whirlwind. It’s been such a dream to be a part of Mercy Ships for so long, that to realise I was here on the ship was so cool. I was also exhausted, having travelled close to 40 hours to get to Cotonou!

We were photographed and given ID tags straight away, and then shown to our cabin. My first morning didn’t go quite to plan, as my phone clock didn’t change, so I slept through breakfast, and part of the morning community meeting! I quickly woke up, as we had an all-day orientation with the hospital nurse educator. We went through documentation, charting, medication calculations, runnings and operations of the ship, scheduling, and pre and post-operative protocols. This was really useful, not only because it explained what we would be doing for the next few months, but it also was a great way to meet the other new starters. At orientation, I met my best friend here, a fellow paediatric nurse from the US.

The first few days on the ship, I felt like the ship was HUGE. I learnt very quickly that the ship is a ship, and not a boat, like I had kept saying! I also got lost trying to find my cabin countless times. I laugh now, because it’s only 150 meters long, but for the first few days, I felt like I was never walking the same set of stairs twice! The first couple of days on the ward in the hospital were busy, emotional, and a lot to take in. I felt extremely well supported and welcomed. I felt like a fish out of water, and home, all at the same time. Everyone is very friendly and warm, and there is a very positive attitude on the ship. This all made it very easy to feel at home.

I thought I was pretty prepared, having researched a lot before I came. I watched a lot of YouTube videos, read a lot of blogs, and actively try to keep an open mind every day. I cried about 30 minutes into my first shift. I was watching my patient have his bandaging taken down by the surgeon, and his reaction to see his head post-surgery was just priceless. I’ve never seen so much gratitude and gratefulness in one moment. It was just a really special moment to witness and to be a part of. It’s funny because it was only a lipoma on his head. It wasn’t like the massive tumours you see in the documentaries or the media releases, but it didn’t mean it was any less important to anyone here. This man was changed in one night, and that was pretty special to see.

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

The food and accommodation on the ship is better than I had prepared myself for. It was one thing I wasn’t too sure of what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. My cabin is a six berth, with 3 bunk beds in each. Each bunk bed has its own little room/space with a table, wardrobe and curtain. The bunks have reading lights and walls are magnetic, making it really easy to decorate. I was also pleased there was a bathroom in our room!

The food has been great so far. No complaints. Endless supplies of vegemite! The food is very Western and very similar to what the average family would have for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There is always salad and fruit available. The bread is freshly baked every day by the baker on board and every morning for breakfast there is something special, such as pancakes, English muffins, cinnamon rolls or brioche buns. All freshly baked and tasty!  The galley team also do African night once every a week for dinner for a bit of local flavour. Last week was spicy fish, beef and baked plantains, always with rice.

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

It’s true that it’s hard not to be affected. But every day is a constant reminder of the life-changing work the ship is doing, and realising and understanding this makes it a little easier to process the hardships we see. It also affirms the reasons why I chose to be here, and why I wanted to give my time, knowledge and abilities. The experience has been very humbling.

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

The sheer size of some of the facial tumours presenting to the ship have really shocked me. It is a sad reality to know that people have lived for years with disabling and debilitating growths that could be so easily managed and treated so quickly if they had have been lucky to be born in a wealthy Western country. Instead, due to the lack of resources, access and ability to afford health care, the tumours on these people are bigger than I have ever seen. The size of some facial tumours are easily comparable to the size of decently sized watermelons. What is so incredible to see is how resilient these people are. They have in incredibly high pain threshold, never complain and are so thankful.

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

I’ve just copied the below, straight from an email I sent my family and friend as they were interested too.

So a typical ward day shift…

Morning shift for the hospital starts at 7am. Between the handover of every shift, there is a group meeting, and then prayer time. Mercy Ships is a Christian organisation, with a heavy emphasis on faith. You don’t have to be Christian to volunteer on board, but you do have to be respectful of what goes on. There are 20 beds in each ward. Each bed space is only a few inches away from the next bed so space is limited. Each nurse is allocated their patients for the day, then we take handover from the night nurses, and start the day.

8am onwards
After handover, the morning routine starts. On my ward, there are can be anything for 4-8 surgical patients per day depending on the surgeons and type of operations going on. If a patient is going to surgery that day, they are woken at 6am by the day crew workers and instructed to shower with chlorhexidine to ensure cleanliness. This can be quite a busy time of morning if there are many patients scheduled for surgery for that day. The operating room lists start at 8am. The operating room nurses come to the ward to collect the patients, and go through the checklists. All the patients are prepared the night before and have been thoroughly informed about what to expect when they go to the OR, where they will recover and what happens when they come back to the ward. When we prepare the patients, we have to explain everything! No detail is too small. We need to remember that they know nothing about surgery or hospitals.  In Australia most people know they will wake up with a cannula in their arm, have IV fluids, feel sleepy. But here we must fully explain to the patients that they will be asleep the whole time, that there is a doctor in charge of making sure they stay asleep and feel no pain, that there will be drips and drains in them when they wake, and that it is important they tell us when they are in pain, or feeling sick. These people are incredibly stoic, but also incredibly scared.

Throughout the shift the patients go and return from surgery. For the kids, the recovery room will call the ward and let us know we can bring the parents into the unit to sit with their kids. We give them a gown and hat and have to remind them their child will be sleepy, have lines and drips connected to them, and might be wearing an oxygen mask. This can be quite confronting for the parents. It can be quite busy when the patients start to return to the ward.

Handover between morning to afternoon shift occurs.  Each day there is something different. Again, it starts with a prayer. Wednesday on A Ward is called ‘Worship Wednesdays’ and there is singing between morning to afternoon shift. Sometimes it’s the day crew singing a local song, other times someone has a guitar and drums. The patients love it and it sets s good mood for the rest of the day. Thursday is ‘Thankful Thursdays’ where everyone shares one thing they may be thankful for (coffee, the pool, certain patients, a patient’s’ quick recovery etc). It sounds cheesy but it really puts everyone in a good mood and the teamwork so positive.

2.30-3.30pm Deck 7 Time!
At the cross over of shift changeover, the morning nurses escort the mobile patients up from the hospital on Deck 3 up to Deck 7.

Deck 7 is kind of like the ‘playground’ for the patients and school kids. It has a green cover mat over the deck, which makes it look like grassed playground. There is also a net from the deck to the next level. It’s not so much for safety, but more as a precaution so that the kids don’t lose too many balls and toys into the water. There are lots of wagons, ride on trikes and bikes, balls, bean bags and a cubby house. The kids LOVE this time as it’s the only time of the day they are allowed outside off the ward. The adults usually find a chair and chat amongst themselves. But you can tell they appreciate being outside in the fresh air. The hospital is on the lower levels of the ship and is under the water so there are no windows in the hospital. It can also get quite hot and stuffy because the wards are small and there are so many people in the rooms. Hence why the patients love the opportunity to get outside. It’s great to see even the post op day one patients up and mobilising to Deck 7. In Australia there is no way patients would be willing to get up and walk. But here, the patients continue to keep pushing through.

The women’s health patients don’t go outside due to their risk of infection. So, at 2.30pm, they sing and dance up and down the hallway of the hospital. They are so happy and lively! They sing upbeat African songs, and clap and dance, all while holding their catheter bags!

At 3.30, we escort the patients back down to the ward, and finish whatever needs to be handed over to the afternoon staff. And then the shift is over! The walk back to my cabin is about 25 seconds, as its just down the hall from the hospital wards.  I shower and change straight away. Then we’re free to do whatever we like.  

So that’s a typical day shift. The shifts are busy, hot, loud and a lot of fun.

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

There is a pool up on Deck 8 which is such a treat, especially when its 35+ degrees outside every day! I like to walk into town with friends, or go to the on board Starbucks which makes delicious coffees for just $1!  The iced vanilla and caramel coffee is the best!

The evenings on the ship are very social. People chill out in the big lounge area, watch movies in the bigger rooms or conference areas, play card or board games, watch what ever sports game is on TV (usually soccer), Facetime family and catch up on reading! We can also go down to the hospital after our work hours and sit with the patients and chat with them or play games with them. UNO and Connect 4 are very popular with the patients!

Going off the ship is fun too! The fabric markets in Benin are amazing! So bright and colourful! Two local tailors come to the ship and have been making amazing clothes for us!
There is also a hotel just outside the port that has been allowing Mercy Ships volunteers to use their pool for free. Local beers are about $2, so it’s a nice way to cool down after a shift, with a fresh pineapple or local foods. There is also an Italian ice-cream shop about 20 minutes walk from the boat. It’s run by Italian ex-pats and the ice-cream is delicious! So good!

Getting around is easy. Walking is nice because we don’t do very much of it on the boat because everything is so close to each other. We can also ride Zimmis (Zimjans) which are local motorbike taxis. They are very efficient, but kind of scary to ride. It’s great that the ship provides helmets to borrow out, as you definitely wouldn’t want to ride a Zimmi without a helmet.

What are the patients like on the ship?

The patients are beautiful. They are stoic, and brave, kind and thankful. They’re so humble. The patients are patient with us, they are forgiving and they embracing of us, as much as we embrace them. The diversity is great, and non-discriminatory. Men, women, old and young, from any background and ethnicity. We see children, babies a few months old, right up to the elderly. My oldest patient since being here has been 88 years old, and my youngest patient has been a baby.

What was your motivation for joining Mercy Ships?

400 million people in the world lack access to basic health services. For me, this is motivation. To be a part of improving the future of people around the world, and help provide access to health care, is something I am very passionate about. As health professionals of today we have the capacity to change the future of those in lower resource countries.  Joining Mercy Ships fulfills this ambition for me, and combines my passion for nursing with my belief that all people should have access to quality health care around the world.

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

No. Not even once since I have been here. Safety is paramount on Mercy Ships. From arriving in Cotonou, to safety measures put in place on and off board the ship, and the policies and procedures in place, I have never felt unsafe. The ship has thought of everything to make things safer for the volunteers in country. There are mobile phones with local sim cards we can borrow out, motorbike helmets to use, every person on board or Mercy Ships affiliated wears an ID tag, we scan on and off the ship, even if it’s just to go down to the dock to take the garbage outside. When we arrive don the ship we had a thorough safety briefing too, including areas not to travel to in Cotonou.

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

If I am honest, every case strikes a chord in one way or another, but one family in particular really blew me away. We recently cared for three young siblings who all had bilateral cataracts. The three children were blind when they arrived to the ship, with very limited visual fields. They looked with their head facing down, and their eyes rolled upwards, so they could make out objects and their surroundings. All three children were operated on, and had their vision completely restored by the ship’s eye surgeons. This is amazing to know three children have a brighter and clearer futures thanks to the ship. What was so special was to learn the children’s mother had also received surgery by Mercy Ships many years ago, when the ship was previously in Benin. She had also had cataract surgery on board, and now her children were receiving the same treatment! The ship is changing the lives of generations. How great is that!

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

If you’re thinking of joining, just do it. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. Come with an open heat, a positive attitude and cheesy smile, and you’ll be set.

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