Francesca Wolsey Talks about her Experience Aboard the Mercy Ship

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Francesca Wolsey
Mackay, QLD
Paediatric Ward Nurse
Served in Benin 2017

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

It was quite overwhelming at first, but within a couple of days I started to feel settled and make friends. I felt a lot of different things when I arrived, the usual anxieties of starting somewhere new, especially an established community like it is here; it’s basically a small town contained on a ship! The working environment is very different to home, and took some getting used to but now it's my new "normal".

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

There is always plenty of choice at meal times, always a hot meal option or you can put a salad together. Sometimes you need to get a bit creative, and there’s always the trusty toastie. There are so many Australians, they even have Vegemite (although I brought my own)!
There is also a Crew Galley, for those who like to cook their own food or do some baking.
I am in a six-berth cabin, which I expected to be a difficult adjustment as I am used to (and enjoy) living alone. Although it is a little cozy, and on Decks 2 and 3 there are no windows, it’s home. We’ve had several different cabin-mates in my time here, but it’s a great way to meet people whom you might otherwise never have spoken to. With 400 crew on board, it’s difficult to get to know everyone!

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

It is very humbling to hear about the struggles of the Beninese people, and not just our patients. I was talking with one of our Day Crew (translators) recently about her family and life; she runs a small shop from her house and her husband is a pastor. They have five children. She told me that each child's school fees are CFA 60,000 per year, and is a great expense to them as they have little income. When I equate this to Australian dollars, it's $129. Most Australian families would easily spend more than this on their weekly groceries, which really highlights the difference in the value of our economies. People here live day to day, and lack of education means their environment is heavily polluted – especially with plastic bags, which is very upsetting to see.
It is also frustrating and upsetting to see so many patients, whom should have been able to have earlier intervention, or better initial treatment, suffer unnecessarily with their ailments. However, it’s uplifting to see them blossom while they are with us, are showered with love and accepted as who they are.

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

All of our patients have incredible stories and have suffered battles that no one should have to. I have been fortunate to work with many of the different specialities, and each has standout patients. Women's Health was a very special time, meeting women who had a painful uterine fibroid grow so large they look several months' pregnant, and others who not only lost their baby after a long and agonising labour, but developed a fistula between their bladder and vagina, making them completely incontinent of urine. I saw great beauty and transformation during this speciality. I truly learned that language may provide barriers, but love, laughter and dancing are universal. The women we looked after receiving obstetric fistula repairs never cease to amaze me. They have suffered through tragedy that is completely preventable, then ostracised and ignored by their communities. But here they blossom, fill our hearts with love, our lungs with laughter, and dance, dance, dance. I will forever cherish the times I've sung, danced and laughed with these ladies; and remember that there is always hope for healing and a better life.

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

I work eight-hour day or evening shifts, or nine-hour night shifts, and do about 20 shifts per month, with one set of night shifts. A typical day starts with breakfast if you get up in time! Work for most, but if I am off or on an evening shift, I will often hang out in Midships lounge area, reading, sewing or writing after visiting the plastics patients on the Dock who come regularly for dressings and rehab.

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

I have made some fantastic friends, and you will always find someone to chat to. It’s important to get off the ship as well, which is easy to do and explore the local areas. In my spare time I cross stitch, crochet, read, watch movies or write. There is a very well-stocked library and selection of movies online to keep you entertained! There is also a small gym, which I haven’t used quite as much as I should, and a pool on Deck 8.

What are the patients like on the ship?

There are many different areas in Benin, and with 55 languages that means there are many different ways of communicating with the Beninese! Most patients are very grateful, and if you try they will happily try to teach you words in their language (via the Day Crew)! It often ends in lots of laughter.
When patients first arrive, they are often withdrawn and quiet, as they are not accepted in their local villages due to their deformities or unusual conditions. Some of them are believed to be cursed, and suffer greatly from this rejection. However, on the ship, they slowly emerge from their shell, as they realise that they are accepted here, no matter what they look like. They meet other people who have struggled through similar journeys, and they thrive with not only physical healing, but emotional and spiritual healing with the abundant love on this ship.

What was your motivation for joining Mercy Ships?

I watched my parents give their time and skills to many local volunteer organisations growing up, and have always wanted to apply my nursing skills in Africa, where my parents are from. Once I found out about Mercy Ships several years ago, I have been working towards volunteering onboard. Although you cannot change everything that needs improving here, you can change someone’s entire life for the better which is an incredible privilege.

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

It is very safe on the ship, and we have a section of dock space that is fenced in. I have felt quite safe while out in the communities, you just have to keep your wits about you like travelling anywhere.

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

A long recovery in hospital and rehab for plastic reconstructive surgeries means we get the opportunity to develop great relationships with some patients. For me, one of these patients is Beatrice: a beautiful teenager who crawled over hot coals as a baby. Both hands disfigured from burn contractures, a forefoot amputation to one foot and burn contracture to her other ankle; and yet she has the brightest smile you have ever seen. Beatrice received burn contracture release and skin grafting surgeries to both hands, meaning her independence was taken away with both hands bandaged and splinted while the wounds healed. She was discharged from the ship hospital a while ago, and is staying at the HOPE Centre, an outreach base for patients who live too far to travel for regular check ups. Despite seeing many other patients be discharged from rehab who were operated on after her, she has an incredible attitude and I am delighted each time I visit her during her rehab appointments as I see her progress and healing.

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

What have you got to lose? Life is what you make of it. You can be as involved in ship activities and the local community as much or as little as you like, meet amazing people and contribute to a population in great need. It takes every role on the ship to make the hospital possible, so even if you cannot volunteer in a healthcare role, you can still make an incredible difference!

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