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Healing Waters

How PTs and OTs are helping Mercy Ships transform lives around the world

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In the New Testament, Jesus describes true Christianity as caring for " the least of these" and in preceding verses, elaborates on exactly who He's defining and containing within that phrase;  the hungry and thirsty, those alone and those imprisoned, and those who are naked and in poor health. While the particular prescriptions for each of these issues are fairly self-explanatory, the parable itself is actually quite heavy as it pertains to an overall discussion of judgment and the genuine, altruistic attentions of one's heart. The reality is that, pure intentions aside, the effort to provide care for those around the world in most dire need of it is one of true sacrifice, selflessness, and compassion.

Conversely, however, the fruit of such magnanimous labors reap rewards which are incomparable and priceless in value, for the giver and receiver alike. For Mercy Ships physical therapist, Courtney Waldron, and occupational therapist, Erin Williams, the care of the ill and infirm were far more than mere sessions to the given health issues of the people they treated in Congo; in caring for the body, they reached out and touched the soul.

The Challenge and the Vision

With an estimated one billion people around the world lacking basic healthcare, and nearly fifty percent of all Africans lacking access to so much as a hospital or a doctor, the challenge embraced by an organization like Mercy Ships is daunting and demands extraordinary faith, as well as effort. Born by the inspiration of founder and president, Don Stephens, Mercy Ships is a floating fortress of free, advanced healthcare for those in need around the world.

Using a "hospital ship," the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships provides care to some of the 75% of the world who live within 100 miles of a port city, many of whom are lacking in adequate care. The ship offers a "controlled, safe, and clean environment ideally suited for serving patients and crew." Traveling to countries, such as Congo, which lack in various necessities such as clean water, reliable electricity, and trained medical professionals, Stephens has since 1978 realized a dream he once had of a hospital ship, a medicinal Mayflower almost, which would sail as a "self-contained instrument of mercy" carrying highly skilled and trained volunteers to those who needed them the very most.

Called to Go Forth

As two of those volunteers, Courtney and Erin have generously given of themselves and embarked upon multiple tours with Mercy Ships, which spends approximately 10 months in the chosen port city.  Volunteers can serve  stints of surgical and therapeutic care ranging from two weeks to two years or more.  Having just recently returned from a field service in the Republic of Congo, Courtney and Erin graciously took time to discuss their experiences with us here at ADVANCE. Both 2008 graduates, Courtney from Virginia Commonwealth's School of Allied Health Professions and Erin from the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Health Professions, they  took fairly similar paths which led to them to ultimately work alongside each other on the Africa Mercy in the Congo. During high school and college years, both participated in non-Mercy Ships mission trips, and both learned, primarily through friends and classmates, about this organization while going through their respective physical therapy and occupational therapy schools. 

Upon learning of Mercy Ships and its work, both Courtney and Erin's interests were piqued at the possibilities of traveling to parts unknown and serving those whose need for care was so great. What barred each from entering the field immediately after graduating was the Mercy Ships requirement that its volunteers have at least two years' experience practicing professionally.

"I had always wanted to go to Africa," Erin said, "and when I learned that I'd need to gain experience working as an OT before I could go, I was patient, but I did sign up for their mailing list." Likewise, Courtney, who expressed a real love and desire for travel of any kind, said that as school progressed for her, she increasingly felt a desire to "give back" and put what she'd learned to use for those who would otherwise be lacking for such treatment.

Both Courtney and Erin worked professionally post-graduation, biding time before they each had obtained the requisite required experience before being thrust headlong into the therapeutic odyssey of their dreams. Each one eventually did set sail on first tours, though not simultaneously or in identical ways. For Courtney, who had been working as a Travel PT here in the States, the opportunity to go serve in the country of Guinea opened up in early 2013; here she would ultimately spend about "three and a half months" prior to her yearlong engagement in Congo.

For Erin, the mission abroad could be construed as a divine appointment. "I was actually all packed and prepared to visit some friends of mine who were working in the Peace Corps in Africa, and on the day I was set to leave (in 2011), I received an email about an opportunity in Sierra Leone. I knew right then that I was supposed to go. I've also had the opportunity to gain some experience in Israel. In all, I've been on two trips in three years, including these past ten months in Congo."

Minding the Healthcare Gap

Working together in Congo, Courtney and Erin discussed some of the challenges unique to working in corners of the world not blessed with what would be considered "basic healthcare" by first world or western standards. While both Erin and Courtney each  mentioned a desire to continue to volunteer in future Mercy Ships field services and highlighted the consistent, faithful support of their churches throughout the duration of their service as essentially full-time medical missionaries, each emphasized the benefits of working within the parameters of a group. "I would not go back independently to Guinea or to Congo," Courtney said, adding that "even with Mercy Ships' resources, it's something that definitely works best in a group setting and over long periods of time."

Both Courtney and Erin worked with an energetic five-year-old named Lucrech.  At the age of two, Lucrech tripped while reaching for a toy. His arm plunged into a pot of beans boiling over an open fire. Burn contractures tightened the skin on his palm, pulling his fingers into a permanently bent position.

Mercy Ships volunteer surgeon, Dr. Tertius Venter, said, "In the First World, we would quickly do a skin graft before a contracture forms. But, in many parts of Africa, this is just not available."

Lucrech quit school a few months before Mercy Ships arrived in Congo. In a culture that views a disability as the sign of a curse, the little boy faced constant ridicule from classmates.

Free surgery and therapy onboard the Africa Mercy gave Lucrech five freed fingers that can move, stretch, grasp, wiggle, point . . . and tickle! When he returned for his weekly physical therapy sessions, he was a miniature whirlwind as he jumped into the arms of crew members.

What are you going to do now that you can use your right hand?" a crew member asked him.

"I want to go back to school to write!" he answered. Then, with a heart-melting grin, he hugged her more tightly and added, "I want to play ball with my friends, too!"

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Of course, the work also has some challenges.  Courtney said that remoteness of patients from the port and the fixed length of the field service made the care significantly more difficult. "You might have to go when patients weren't all the way healed, and there was also the fact that people could come from so far away and there might be little to no record of their medical history available to work with. While we were pretty successful connecting with doctors and healthcare professionals who were based in Congo and did our best to show people what to do beyond the time the ship was there, the healthcare systems in Congo (and other third world countries) make it challenging even for an organization like Mercy Ships."

While on the occupational therapy side of things, Erin felt that follow-up care was more effective, she stressed that the sheer number of people in need of care at a given time and the 10-month time frame for service made the quality versus quantity of care issue a balancing act.  "It can be hard caring for things and for people in places where there is so much less healthcare education; they not only might tend to have more preventable issues we don't see as much in America, but they also might need to be instructed a little more on how to take care of themselves beyond therapy sessions. Also, it was so much harder caring for anyone there the way you want to as a therapist, which is one hundred percent, and then also tending to the needs of so many people who were coming to us."

Healing's Universal Language

Both she and Courtney made mention of the cultural differences of "mixing the first and third world," as Erin put it, which, while not unique to volunteer service amongst medical professionals, certainly did not make the performing of something as personal as therapy any easier. What's more, aside from the obvious language and syntax issues that come with treating and caring for people whose language you do not speak (something they both noted), there were even some bureaucratic obstacles amongst therapists and translators, which Courtney especially commented on. "For me, I was the rehab team leader and in charge of four to five therapists. Likewise, I was in charge of the translators, who we constantly used when giving care. Sometimes, the expectations of translators and therapists didn't match up, but it's always important to remember that relationships, cross-cultural or not, are always a two-way street. "

Lastly, in terms of what this unique, complicated, and at times challenging method of care taught them and offered in the way of broadened talents to take back home, both Courtney and Erin were quick to point out some of the unusual medical tasks - casting, splinting, observing surgical procedures - that they would have otherwise been unlikely to learn at a clinical, practical, level.  They gleaned knowledge and insight from the surgeons aboard the ship. Erin spoke to the ship's international crew about the clinical decision-making and creative problem-solving the trip helped her to develop, and how interesting and edifying it was to see how others made decisions under those same circumstances.

They also both specified the specialness of the relationships they were able to form with many of their patients as being far and away the greatest reward of the whole enterprise. "Working with patients, therapists get to spend the greatest amount of time. We're there pre-op (for those in need of surgery) for the evaluation, and we're with them all the way through discharge. To see them for that long, from start to finish, and to even get to visit with them at their homes in a couple of cases was a real blessing," Courtney said.

Greatly Blessed, Highly Favored

Focusing on what is basically a floating hospital and its service as it docks in third world port, it is easy to forget that Mercy Ships is a volunteer organization, rather than a mobile, transplanted branch of benevolence afforded by a major university hospital such as the University of Pennsylvania. The surgeons, therapists, and other caregivers onboard are accredited and experienced medical professionals selflessly giving of their time and paying their own way to use their talents for  the well-being of others.

For those who are religious as well as those who are not, however, there can be little debate as to the spiritual nature of the enterprise. As Erin remarked of those treated and giving treatment, "It was just amazing to see what the Lord did. You put 400 people on a ship to care for others, the care is all free, and it works. That's a miracle! When you take that into account along with the gratefulness of the patients, it was just very clear to me that the favor of the Lord was on the place."

Irrespective of one's personal beliefs, one thing is abundantly obvious about Courtney and Erin's journey and Mercy Ships as a whole:  for millions around the world, they part the seas of suffering, and they ceaselessly care for "the least of these."

For more on Mercy Ships' voyage to the Congo, flip through our photo gallery.


Tamer Abouras is an editorial intern at ADVANCE


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