Transforming lives on board and onshore
When Sonja Dawson volunteered to work for three months on board a Mercy Ship in 1994, she had no idea she’d be staying for the following 12 years. Her story is unique but the themes are not uncommon, with many nurses returning each year to work with the ship and many others who remain for years aboard. Once an undergraduate nursing student at UTS and now undertaking a PhD, Sonja draws on this life-changing experience to inform her research.
Mercy Ships are non-government floating hospitals which specialise in providing surgical procedures to low socioeconomic countries, where such operations are either inaccessible or too expensive for the common public.
“Often surgery is performed to enhance the individual’s quality of life, with many individuals shunned from public because of their deformity or difference,” says Sonja.
The surgical services vary from general procedures to life-threatening, including head and neck surgery, removal of tumours, treatment for infection and child orthopaedic surgery.
Although many of the surgeries performed would be considered ‘elective’ in Australia, the medical attention given by the nurses and doctors on the ship changes the quality of patient’s lives by increasing their functionality and giving them back pride and dignity.
“Many patients have not been involved in society for many years because of their disfigurement, but lots of their conditions would have been repaired if there was access to health care,” says Sonja.
Over the ten months the ship is docked, changing the lives of patients isn’t all the volunteer medical team do. A sizable amount of their attention is focused on helping mentor local surgeons and nurses so that local medical services can continue to advance in the ships’ absence.
In 2001, while the ship was docked in Cotonou, Benin, Sonja was met by a 3-year-old girl name Cavilla and her pregnant mother. Cavilla suffered from a malignant tumour on her eye and received treatment, chemotherapy and was discharged. Seven days after her discharge she returned, her condition having worsened because of infection.
After Cavilla passed away, Sonja re-visited her village, noticing a rampage of lice, scabies and worms. She and other nurses decided to dedicate their time every Saturday to teach basic health care to the village.
15 years on, the village was thriving, and the once pregnant mother of Cavilla was now the mother of a 15-year-old girl, Julia-Sonja named after the nurses who changed her life and the livelihood of her village.
Inspired by her initial experience upon the Anastasis, Sonja Dawson returned to the Mercy Ship organisation, boarding the Africa Mercy for an additional six months’ service while collecting data from interviews with 49 nurses for her PhD.
Her study explores the culture of nursing on board the ship and their motives for volunteering. The findings will help to improve processes in the selection, preparation and debriefing of volunteer nurses. It will also aid in preparing future volunteer nurses to correctly delivery compassionate care in line with the values of Mercy Ships.
Sonja Dawson encourages others to volunteer, “…nurses come back time after time because it’s fulfilling. You’re taking care of the whole person and transforming their life.”