When I came back from Sierra Leone, my husband noticed I was different. I was only there for three weeks but I found things very difficult because we take so much for granted in this country. It took me a while to adjust and rationalise the luck of the draw that comes with being born on one side of the world compared the other.”
Lorraine Montgomery was understandably nervous when setting off on her first overseas adventure. Married in her late teens, she had never been without her family.
Through word of mouth she heard about Mercy Ships, an international charity providing free medical care and humanitarian support to some of the world’s poorest countries – and she was hooked.
Recalling her first impressions of the place she was to call both home and hospital for the next three weeks, Lorraine said she was “overwhelmed” at the size and expanse of the Africa Mercy. Little wonder as the ship measures 152 metres long and 27 metres high - roughly the length of two football fields and seven stories high.
After being greeted at Lungi International Airport by Mercy Ships staff in Sierra Leone, Lorraine was taken to the ship for the first time in a typically rustic fashion. Not unlike the trials on the popular TV show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Lorraine had to first cross the 25-mile wide Sierra Leone river in a “bumpy and bouncy” water taxi and board the ship by climbing two railway sleepers roped together. While many would recount this journey into the unknown with a degree of trepidation, Lorraine can’t help but laugh.
“I can remember travelling across the river while it was getting dark and I could see this huge big white ship on the horizon like a diamond,” she says fondly.
“Drawing up alongside the ship in such a tiny boat was so exciting.”
Lorraine’s adventure began when she awoke on her 50th birthday craving a challenge – a break from the normal day-to-day grind of being an ophthalmic nurse in Milton Keynes NHS Foundation Trust – the second hospital she has worked at in her career after Stonehouse Hospital in her native Scotland.
After months of poring through Mercy Ships’ rigorous application process, in which qualifications are thoroughly checked and references sought, Lorraine has now sailed the seas to Sierra Leone in May 2011 and Togo in May 2012 using her own annual leave. Congo is next on her wish list.
Mercy Ships was founded in 1978 by American couple Don and Deyon Stephens after being inspired by the work of the international hospital ship SS Hope and following the birth of their disabled son. The charity has now worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than £630m and has helped in excess of two million people. Each year the organisation attracts more than 1,200 volunteers from more than 40 countries. While the majority of its volunteers hail from North America, a large proportion are from the UK, the rest of Europe and Australia.
The Africa Mercy has everything a typical local hospital has – wards, surgical theatres, outpatient departments and day surgery – the only difference is that it is moored in a harbour, floats on water and is in a different country every ten months. Although a moving entity, the ship must remain in the dock while patients are being treated to allow its 450 volunteers – who stay on board anywhere from two weeks to a full calendar year – to provide care in the safest way possible.
While the name of the charity implies a fleet of such ships, a lack of funding sadly means there is only one currently in operation. Reflecting the harsh realities of the economic climate, two ships have had to be decommissioned as the maintenance, upkeep and running of the floating hospitals proved too expensive.
In Lorraine’s words, “it’s not just a case of pitching up and hoping” – a lot of the work involved in running Mercy Ships happens well before the ship reaches international waters. Intense rounds of negotiation between Mercy Ships and local government often take place before volunteers can even step foot on land, with the organisation often steering clear of countries in the midst of active civil war.
While Lorraine has never felt threatened while out and about in either Sierra Leone or Togo, she is ever-reminded of potential security breaches or pirate attacks each time she looks up and sees ex-British Army members patrolling the ship.
“Mercy Ships is very aware of the risk of pirates and as such have Gurkhas that work as security when the ship is in the dock,” she says. “But I always feel protected.”
Screening teams made up of volunteer clinicians also carry out the majority of their ‘field work’ before the ship docks through the help of local churches and radio stations. It is here that health professionals witness the harsh realities of devastating poverty and face the unbearable decision to potentially turn away those they are unable to help. It is clear Lorraine found her screening experiences both inspirational and extremely painful.
“One morning in a little village church in Sierra Leone, I saw 250 people in one day. Most of these people had walked for miles for get there and waited patiently to be seen. Sometimes the solutions can be as simple as giving someone a pair of reading glasses. It is great to see the amazement on someone’s face when they can see for the first time.
“But other times, you have no choice but to turn people away. Some people presented with enlarged thyroid glands – a condition that can be operated on providing the patient can take the thyroxine drug for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the drug into the country so we could only offer palliative care. It was heart wrenching.”
Mercy Ships is now looking to set up support networks in countries such as Togo to provide emotional support for those the volunteers are unable to help.
“A lot of people have very high expectations that the ship is going to come and fix everything,” she says sadly.
Today, Lorraine is a happy and confident nurse, travelling all over the world giving care to those most in need. But she didn’t become the nurse she is overnight – in fact, she very nearly didn’t become a nurse at all. A lack of confidence meant her 17-year-old self almost let her dreams of becoming a nurse pass her by.
“I always wanted to be a nurse when I was younger but thought I didn’t have the qualifications needed and so careers day passed me by,” she recalls.
Shunning the nursing profession, Lorraine “ended up” in office work and quickly became immersed in family life – married at 19 and a mother to two sons at 25 years old. But the call to nursing never went away.
So when Lorraine’s father became ill with bowel cancer, she was the first to raise her hand to care for him. It was this “very involved” experience and encouragement from her friends and family that finally gave her the push she needed to file an application to Lanarkshire College of Nursing and Midwifery. And it was not a moment too soon.
Now, 51 years old, Lorraine says she “admires” young girls that waste no time in living their nursing dream.
“I think it is fantastic, I was in no way ready to do what they are doing at their age,” she says.
“For me personally, life experience and having a family stood me in good stead to become a nurse,” she says.
“Coping and dealing with the challenges you face in everyday family life gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a nursing career.”
Louise Naughton is a writer and journalist specialising in healthcare.
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