Sophie Cunningham Talks About her Time on the Mercy Ships

Video highlights from The Surgery Ship

What happens on the Mercy Ship?

Sophie Cunningham
Battery Point, TAS
Adult ICU Ward Nurse
Served Madagascar 2015, Benin 2017

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

Coming onto the ship can be a little daunting, there are so many people, lots of new information coming at you and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Finding your feet can be a little difficult but you quickly make friends with the crew. For me it wasn't so bad, as I had made a friend on the way over. We were on the same flight, and as it turns out, we were both eyeing off this nice looking flight attendant - when we were in passport control he introduced us as he realised we were both heading to Mercy Ships. Let’s just say we never looked back at that nice flight attendant :) Having a friend made the whole process a little easier, and we are best friends to this day.

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

Our accommodation depends on your position category. As a nurse, I get a six berth. It’s a small cabin in a space which I would guess to be around 20 square meters. So you are literally in someone’s personal space at all times but your cabin mates are some of your closest friends you have on the ship. Except in the mornings - anything is fair game when you are fighting 5 other girls for the bathroom.

I have no issues with the food on the ship - some people complain - but usually, it’s delicious and I think our chefs do a fantastic job. There is always fresh salad and fresh fruit available at meal times. You just have to watch out for the Mercy Hips - believe it or not, it is very easy to come to Africa and gain weight. Who would have thought right?

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

I am sad to admit that sometimes it can be very easy to forget about the poverty here. We are living on an American ship and working in a developed world hospital. Sometimes it takes getting off the ship to remind yourself that you are in West Africa. I remember we had a patient who had come back from the theatre, we had to leave on his drip fluids on for a long time as he hadn't been drinking water. It turns out that he didn't realise that water came out of the tap, so he didn't know that there was drinkable water! Sometimes it is little things like this that hit you hard and you remember the poverty here.

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

This is a tough question and depends on your perspective. I have seen some pretty crazy things here in Africa. I have seen a 2.2 kg goitre removed, which completely changed a lady’s life. I have seen massive facial tumours that have grown around people’s airway and slowly suffocate them. But to me, it isn't these visually startling cases that have the most impact.
I remember a lady who had been admitted to the ship with an obstetric fistula. She had been happily married and fell pregnant. Sadly, her labour lasted for 4 days, and by the time she delivered, her baby was dead. By the time she had buried her baby, she had started to leak urine uncontrollably. He husband was disgusted and divorced her. She remarried, somehow managed to fall pregnant again, but sadly, this baby died as well. This husband cast her out and her village shunned her and she was sent to live with the cows as she was 'unfit' to live among them. Mercy Ships found her, underweight, malnourished and severely depressed.
These stories touch the corners of my heart, they have endured much both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it is easy to fix a physical ailment but it can be so, so hard to walk someone through the horrors of their past which is why I find some of the obstetric fistula ladies some of the worst cases on the ship.

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

Haha, have you ever asked a nurse what a typical day in the hospital looks like? You will probably get a funny look because no two days are the same! But hey, I'll give it a go.

0615 Wake up, get ready for work
0630 Head up to breakfast, where they have a buffet style breakfast - eggs, bacon, porridge or cereal - the choice is yours. I am boring and just get the porridge with a piece of fruit.
0659 Depart for work
0700 Arrive at work, get hand over and start the day. It could be anything like taking an ICU patient, having up to 6 patients, to being the in charge nurse. Like I said, every day is different.
1200 Lunch. Soup and sandwiches.
1400 Hand over to evening staff.
1430 Head up to Deck 7 so the patients can have some fresh air. The hospital is down in the belly of the ship so we take them up the 7 seven flights of stairs so they can get their daily vitamin D
1530 Finish work, grab a cup of tea, either head up to the pool, read a book or relax with some friends.
1700-1830 Dinner
1830-2100 Free time - team up with friends, watch a movie, go to the gym, you can do what you like.

What do I do for fun? I love to read and they have a fantastic library on board, so I am easily pleased with a good book, a cup of tea and a comfy couch. The pool is also a great place to hang out, going for a swim or lounging on the pool deck. Or just hanging out with friends is always fun.

What are the patients like on the ship? You'll have to watch NatGeo to find out :)

What was my motivation for joining Mercy Ships?

Another hard question. I remember hearing about it when I was a lot younger and thinking that sounds amazing! Years later, after I have finished my nursing training and working in the ICU, there was a position open with MS, I applied, and hey, they accepted me :)

Has there been a time when you were in danger?

Actually yes. Unfortunately, being a white person in a developing nation in West Africa makes you stick out like a saw thumb. People will come up to you a lot and try and talk with you. Normally it is harmless stuff - I've forgotten the amount of marriage proposals I have had since being in West Africa, but there was one time a man followed us back to the ship. He was speaking in French so we couldn't fully understand him, but got the jist that he wanted money to get to France. This guy was not a small little African guy and he was and in our personal space. We insisted that it was not possible but he followed for about 2 km to the port gate - somehow managed to sweet talk the port security guards into letting him into the port - fortunately a Mercy Ships vehicle came though the port at that stage and we waved him down and we shot into the car.  I must admit - there was a part of me that wanted that man to meet our Nepalese Gurkhas just so I could see the Gurkhas in action. We found out later that man had been jailed on a number of accounts and had been targeting Mercy Ships volunteers.

But don't let this scare you off coming to Mercy Ships - it really is worth doing and I have not regretted coming to West Africa at all. Even if you are an engineer, chef, receptionist or housekeeper, we need you.

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