Sarah Christensen, 27, has just started her nursing career, but she is already making big changes in people’s lives who are in need of medical help. Christensen just returned back to work at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor after volunteering for four months on the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship.
“I was in Cameroon in the Port of Douala,” Christensen said. “I saw around 150 women health patients and possibly over 1,000 surgeries in the four months I was there.”
Christensen moved to Gig Harbor from Bremerton just after graduating with her nursing degree in 2012. She obtained a job at the local hospital as a surgical nurse before deciding to volunteer.
“My cousin was a volunteer on the ship over 10 years ago as a housekeeper,” she said. “I really liked her story and decided it was something I wanted to do.”
Mercy Ships, a Christian non-profit organization, has been operating fleets of hospital ships around the world since 1978. According to Mercy Ship’s website, Africa Mercy was obtained by the organization in 1999 and it is the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, effectively more than doubling the annual medical capacity of her predecessors.
“It started in Denmark as a rail ship,” Christensen said. “The queen would sail on the ship I was told, and the queen’s lounge is now a conference room. The hospital is built where the rail cars were stored.”
The large ship was repurposed into a hospital and now sits on the coast of different countries attending the needs of those with no access to clean water and medical care. It will be in the Port of Douala till June.
Christensen trained and was taught about different illnesses from the tropical area before being assigned to serve in the woman’s ward, specifically with women who had been shunned from their villages and families for reasons beyond their control.
“She cared specifically for women patients who had free surgeries to cure obstetric fistulas,” Pauline Rick, spokesperson for Mercy Ships, said. “This condition is a childbirth injury that occurred when their baby got lodged in the birth canal during delivery.”
Christensen said many women in the area had troublesome labor while pregnant because many of the woman had small frames from lack of nourishment.
“This caused days of torturous labor,” Rick said. “To the mother’s horror, she delivered a stillborn child. But, then, if it could be worse, she found out that she was incontinent.”
Christensen and Rick said in many cultures around the Cameroon area women were seen as cursed and were excommunicated from their communities if they delievered a stillborn baby or were found incontinent. Helping these women through surgery and counseling brought joy to both the patients and Christensen.
“I had one patient who told me she had never felt love until she came upon our ship,” Christensen said. “She said she was healed even before the surgery. It was good to know, even if people are never physically healed, inside they can still have that healing.”
Not all of the babies born to these women Christensen helped died, she said every now and then a mother with a new infant would come aboard the ship to show the nurses their child.
“We just loved seeing the babies,” Christensen said.
After surgery, many of the women patients were honored in a ceremony held on the ship with their families. They were given new dresses, makeovers and jewelry to wear while the ship and their community held a large party celebrating the patients “return to womanhood.”
“By the time they left, after a beautiful celebration with the nurses which included doing their hair, makeup, and giving them a new African dress and headdress, they were changed and hopeful once again for their futures,” Rick said. “Some of these women had been (incontinent) for decades before they were treated by Mercy Ships, and cared for by Sarah. So, you can imagine the impact on their lives to be “dry” again, and to reach that point with the tender care of your hometown volunteer.”
Christensen is now back at her job at St. Anthony Hospital, where her coworkers waited to hear her stories about Africa.
“My boss and coworkers were really excited for me,” she said. “I just love it here in Gig Harbor.”
Christensen said even though she is looking forward to getting back to her regular day job, she is considering spending more time on Mercy Ships to help those in need around the world.
“You go to help people and to give,” Christensen said. “But once you are there they are blessing you. It is just an amazing experience, you expect to bless others but you get blessed.”