Thursday, September 27, 2012

Being a Kid on a Ship in Africa

While there are many things we give up by choosing to live here (on a ship, yet tied to a dock; in Africa, but not really IN Africa; in a HERE that changes every few months, while the members of our "household" change daily), there are many OTHER things that we gain.

I remember as we were preparing to come to Mercy Ships and explaining to people that we were going to work in Africa with an organization that provides free surgeries.  The general concept was warmly received.  "Wow.  That is so cool."  Then the practical gears of their minds would kick in and ask questions like, "what about your house? What about your job?  How much will you get paid?"  And our favorite, "What about your kids? What are you going to do with them?" 

Surprisingly, we planned on bringing them WITH us.  Crazy as it sounds, we think sticking on the same continent as a family is the best kind of plan.  

And it seems that the girls would concur.  They enjoy the unique moments that make up the ordinary moments here.   

Here are a few examples of moments that stand out:

They have a chance not just to learn about the world, but to live, laugh, and love with 30-40 other nationalities.  Not only hearing about differences, but experiencing them. As we move from country to country the academy study that place, pray for that place, and get to learn about that place first hand.

here we are arriving into the port of Conakry.

And below you'll see an atypical Sunday evening - making 2000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for screening day volunteers and patients, the night before our big screening day.

Forts, forts and more forts! Our walls and beds are steel so magnets and anything cloth make for a fort building utopia -  no matter the time of day or how many are available to play.

A new Snuggie fort??
Here are the girls as I'm trying to tuck them into bed!  How do you get the squirrelies out??

 They share a room that is about 12 feet long and 7 feet wide.  You'd think that we'd have very little in the room to dirty it, but Savannah is a little bit like that Peanuts character...what was his name?  Ah, yes.  Pigpen! 

After a few days of delaying, stalling and excuse making, she ran out of chances to "clean it later."  The bedtime book was shut and she was sent to bed while I confiscated all the items on the floor - of which only one or two were Kylie's.  Wow! Without the yards and the parks and the activities around town, they still manage to have a lot of fun, and like using their imagination once again.

Can you spot the Pillow Pet?

Not to say that we don't have any new toys. We have our share of electronics (maybe more than our share!), and they have turned into computer whiz kids. 

The girls also have dedicated teachers that pour all their energy into their classes - whether there are two students or ten!  (yes, the biggest class onboard has ten 4th and 5th graders combined).  The academy received three new smartboards this year and the teachers, parents and kids have enjoyed using these new educational toys as well! 

On back to school night, the kids educated the parents with activities, games and a glimpse into their think-out-of-the-box approach to school in a small white, floating ship where space might be limited, but the learning is endless. 

During work experience week, all the 6th-12th graders are able to choose a department and shadow for the week.  Last year we had people working in the cafe, as writers, as nursing and dental assistants, in hospital supply management, with the deck department and at reception.

We've traveled to Sierra Leone, Ghana, Togo, and the Canary Islands.  We're learning and practicing French in context of developing friendships here.  We are seeing people's physical lives changed and watching the (sometimes painful) process of how the body heals, and how that opens the door to a complete life transformation.
So, while they miss things like Chick-Fil-A, snow and bowling, the girls are receiving lifelong lessons and a perspective like no other.

Savannah, during a Fire Drill on the dock, after an Egyptian lesson done in collaboration with the British School of Lome, Togo.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hospital Sterilizing Room: After School Activity

The girls have been blessed to have made some amazing friends on the ship, and with those friends come perks.  (I mean, isn’t that one of the best benefits of friendships?). 
One particular friendship with perks is with our friend Jane.  We met Jane in January 2011 as she did Gateway training with us (joining us in everything from silly ice breaker games (top photo) to Basic Safety Training (2nd photo)).  She comes from Canada.  She has been working in the OR Sterilizing Room since we came onboard.  Jane and her team get all the instruments and gnarly equipment after a gory surgery and boil, steam, and sterilize so they are appropriately cleaned and ready for future use.  If you’ve ever watched a surgery, you’ll know how messy it can be.  Let’s face it:  surgery is bloody.  So this room is ultra-important to the health and well-being of our patients.

Jane with her team of guys: Juan from Dominican Republic, and Frank, Mark and George from Sierra Leone

The day of the Main Screening Day, Jane had been asked to stay onboard and get the equipment ready for surgeries that were due to open soon.  We also asked her to be “on-call” for our children. She gladly accepted this responsibility, and then later wondered if they might want to accompany her down to the sterilizing room for a new activity.  Certainly they would! 

Surgeries had not yet begun but some of the packages had been opened and needed to be re-sterilized, and some of the instruments needed to be re-sterlized after the sail.  The girls wouldn’t get to see the room at its worst, but still they could have a bit of the adventure.

So, Savannah and Kylie and their friend Jessica suited up in scrubs, or caps, shoe covers and readied themselves for entering this sterile environment. 

They spent their time putting litmus paper into sterlizing packs (as an indicator of expiration dates), putting eye tools into their sterile packs and sealing them, and (of course) listening to music.

 What a treat to have a great friend, the opportunity to see something new, and this amazing community around us!
Jane was a trooper putting up with our little rugrats all afternoon and evening.  By the time we finished at the screening site and returned to the ship it was nearly 9:00pm. 

She said about a million girls came over to the cabin for dinner too.  I think she must have exaggerated since there are only about 25 little girls on the ship, but I believe that there were 8-10 of them eating in our cabin!

Kylie had a long day - helping out with the other junior and senior highers at screening with water and food distribution, playing with the children, and serving as an escort among the stations.  She enjoyed being a part of the big screening day, but equally enjoyed feeling important in this special after-school job!  Thanks Jane!


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Screening Day: What Hope Looks Like

5:30am.  The alarm goes off and jostles me awake in the pitch blackness.  Rain drizzles outside.  Breakfast started at 5:00am today.  I stumble to the dining room for a bowl of porridge (um, oatmeal, I mean).  Already we have had crew posted through the night around the Palais du Peuple, the People's Palace.  Yesterday we showed up at 2:00pm to set up the stations, walk through the building, and prepare for the big day.  As commonly happens in Africa, things didn't go quite as expected. 

We weren't able to utilize the whole building yet.  A wedding and concert were scheduled Sunday night at the venue, after we were promised it in entirety from 2:00pm on.  The man with the keys for the room where our tables and chairs are being stored doesn't show up.  So we return, late in the evening, with headlamps and torches (sorry, flashlights) to move chairs, tables and hang maps.    Lord, what are you doing?  Will the patients come?  Did word get out adequately?  Will the rains keep people away?  Will safety prevail?  How will we look back on this day?

Prayers are going up worldwide.  By the thousands.  By the tens of thousands.  The network of people lifting up this event to the Lord looks like an AT&T worldwide coverage ad.

We caravan in the dark through the city.  Land Rover after Land Rover.  If they didn't know we were here yet, they do now.

The line - it's like a congo line.  People running, hobbling, shuffing but just can't catch up to its end.  From 200 standing in line at 4:59am to 2000 in a matter of minutes.  They are showing up by the carload.

Are they just curious?  Have they heard that miracle workers are here?  Will they be looking for asthma, arthritis and cures for genetic defects?  For some, yes. 

But, oh!  The large numbers of facial tumors!  They keep coming!

This is what hope looks like. 
The fear -  of seeing these faces that have been stretched beyond recognition by forces beyond their control - this fear, is gone.  Now my face lights up with joy as I see these precious ones who have lived in desperation for years, ashamed and devastated by their own appearance.  And they come, afraid to set their hopes too high, convinced that they are beyond help. 

I make eye contact, finding the eye that has the best visibility - this can be the trickiest part.  I smile from the depth of my heart.  A smile that says, "You are welcome here! You are not forgotten!  God has not given up on you.  He sees!  We are SO glad to see you!"

First by a trickle and soon a swiftly flowing river of patients make their way through the maze of stations we have.

4300 people have come through the iron gates onto the front lawn of the People's Palace.  Nurses evaluate each and every person who has chosen to wait hours in first the drizzle, then the clouded humidity, and finally the sun.  Over 500 people are screened by our eye team outside and determined that we could potentially help them further. 

Those with other surgical issues we could potentially treat are escorted inside to begin the collection process on their information.  Each type of condition is brought to see doctors, surgeons and nurses to determine the next step: schedule a surgery, xray, CT scan, waitlist or if we are unable to help.   Escorts continue to guide the nearly 850 patients (plus their loved ones) through the three stories of stations.

Finally they reach the ground floor (Ground Zero) and they are nearing the end of their day with us.  I await at the Card Issuing Station.  And we see them all: Orthopedic patients: little ones with feet seemingly attached upside down, babies with Kermit the Frog legs whose knees look like they are reversed as they touch their chests effortlessly, twelve-year olds that measure three feet tall with legs bowed almost in a complete circle.  Babies, children and teens with cleft lips and palates - their beautiful smiles of joy stretching even wider than our lips allow.  Patients who had surgery on one of the previous Mercy Ships, the Anastasis, in 1998 to repair a condition and now have returned for their follow up surgeries.  They have waited 14 years for our return!  Sierra Leonean patients have crossed the border with their paperwork that states they will need a second surgery and even though that date is November or next January, they come expectantly, knowing the schedule is limited.  VVF ladies have found there way here, with a big "YES!" written on their paperwork from our nurses.  The crook of a burnt arm, the taut marbled skin of a burned cheek and eyelid, both young and old have suffered at the hands of an open flame. The embarrassed faces, the shame that has veiled them vanishes as I stretch out my hand with a "Bon Soir, comment ca va?"  To be looked in the eye and treated as a valued equal, to know that there is a chance that help has arrived for them.  This gives them a tangible hope.

They leave with a plastic card: PATIENT.  They each have a name, a number, and the next step.  For some it's another screening day (on a smaller scale, with a specific surgeon who will identify his/her own patients), for others it's being on a waitlist and they are told to keep their cell phones turned on.  And for others they have an appointment on the ship - a Scan.  An Xray.  An admission.

These are the days when we see that for hope to be credible in the future means that we have to be tangible in the present (US Ambassador Robert Seiple).

This is a day when you can taste the hope. 

These are the days I live for.

Sidenote:  These are the only photos that have been made available to us so far from the screening day.  Please stay tuned- I will do another post with the best photos our communications department took when they are available.