Claire Newnham Speaks about the Highs and Lows of Serving on the Mercy Ship

Video highlights from The Surgery Ship

What does a typical day look like on the Mercy Ship?

Claire Newnham
Ringwood, VIC
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?

Overwhelmed. When I came to the port and saw the ship I thought, ‘What have I got myself into, this ship is huge.’ I was so excited to be there. My brain was going a million miles an hour.

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

Food is great...You have to watch out for Mercy Hips.

Accom is also great. It takes some getting used to living so close to other people but now I'm all settled in. I will be so lonely without my 5 other bunkmates when I go home. 

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

It has been a struggle to adjust to going home, the poverty makes you question everything you buy and do. It took me a long time when I got home to stop being angry. But anger disconnects you from the people around you and you have to remember that they haven't seen the poverty you have and no amount of explaining will make them understand what it does to you inside.

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

The worst thing is often the best thing. In the first week of working in Madagascar two we admitted this 7-month-old baby who was dangerously dehydrated due to a bilateral cleft lip and palate, causing an inability to suckle her mother’s breast. She was part of the Infant Feeding Program where Mercy Ships feeds babies so that they can get to surgery ready weights. We don't often admit for medical reasons but she was near death. We undressed her to weigh her and I took one look at her and burst into tears and thought, ‘I have to go home. I can't do this. This is unbearable to see.’ She was so tiny. 2.2kgs. She was born at 4.4kgs. Her mother was desperate. She was still hand expressing milk at 7 months trying so hard to feed this baby but it was not enough. We started to feed this baby who could not even cry, just whimper. And in three days she started to make eye contact. Started to smile. And the very worst thing became the best thing.

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

A typical day involves working hard and playing hard. There is always something to do and always people to hang out with. Ward nurses work 8-hour rotating shifts. And after there is plenty to do.

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

On the ship there are many things to do. Board games in midships, gym, workout classes, hang out at Starbucks. But mostly it’s just chat to the amazing people you meet. You experience intense relationships on board, it’s awesome.

What are the patients like on the ship?

The patients are great. They make the work here a joy. There is so much to learn about culture and cross-cultural nursing. The biggest thing that stands out is appreciation. The patients are glad to be here and appreciate the care so much. Also they are brave.  This journey to health is such a scary one. Some have never been to hospital or on a ship. Some come with beliefs that we might eat them. Some have heard about surgical risk in their own country and think that although we do the surgery for free the risks are the same as in the country, which isn't true. Some think that we might take their kidneys. The patients are soooo brave, I respect them to even step on board. 

What was your motivation for joining Mercy Ships?

I believe that healthcare should be free for all and sometimes you have to sacrifice for the things you believe in. And it has been well worth it. I have been blessed by coming here so much. I may not be paid in money but I ask you how many miracles have you seen?

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

Not more than usual. There are risks but you always try and minimise them by going out in groups etc.

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

Too many to count.

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

Jump. Best thing I have ever done in my life.

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