That's why late last year, I travelled halfway around the world for five months, off the coast of the island of Madagascar. I wasn't there for the sun or the sand. I was there to make a difference.
The compulsion to serve others overseas was not new for me. As the daughter of Salvation Army pastors, faith and a desire to help others were an integral part of my upbringing.
After graduating from high school, I attended Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ont., where I completed a bachelor's degree in theology with a focus on mission studies. While there, I did a mission trip to Kenya for 3½ months and that whetted my appetite for overseas work.
It was while in college that I heard about Mercy Ships, an international charity organization that has operated four hospital vessels since 1978.
Currently the world's largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy is a specialized surgical vessel equipped with multi-bed wards and isolation facilities. Boasting a crew of more than 400, including families with small children, from more than 40 nations, the aim of the Africa Mercy is to relieve physical suffering and restore dignity to some of the most impoverished people on earth, ones whose ailments could be easily treated in North America but could mean social ostracism or even death where they live. Cleft lips, cataracts and bowed legs are some of the common issues seen by the medical staff as they move from port to port every 10 months or so.
I applied to serve and was delighted to hear that I'd been accepted on the Africa Mercy, which set sail last Thanksgiving for Madagascar, located off the coast of southeast Africa.
My job as part of the hospitality department involved greeting new crew members. I'd get them stowed away, make sure their paperwork was up to date and give them a tour of the ship so they would be able to find their way around. I served the guests meals and saw to the upkeep of their cabins.
Before I joined the Africa Mercy, I'd assumed that half the crew would consist of the doctors and nurses and half would be support staff. In actuality, only a third of the Africa Mercy serves in the hospital; the other two thirds are the deck crew and engineering staff, and support people like myself.
A few of the crew members struggled with their assigned duties. What difference am I making? they'd think. I'm not saving lives. I'm not caring for the patients.
That sometimes bothered me as well, but in my own way of thinking, our ship reminded me of a story in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul admonished his congregation and reminds them that everyone in the church has a role to play (see 1 Corinthians 12:12). Without the engineering staff, how would the ship go where it was needed? If we were all surgeons, who would feed us? Without people such as myself, how would things stay ship-shape? It all needs to happen for the success of the mission.
Gift of Life
While I was confident and happy in my support role, there was another very concrete way I made a difference: giving blood. Unlike in Canada, on the Africa Mercy, the blood we donated went directly into a patient within 24 hours. There wasn't a lot of blood banked because the doctors had no way of knowing what would be needed on any given day, nor did they have sufficient storage facilities.
Soon after I arrived on the ship, I donated a unit of blood. The next day, a technician stopped me in the hallway and told me that the blood I had given was already in one of the young patients.
Midway through my five-month stay, a surgical procedure required 17 units of blood. As it happened, I was donating again when one of the nurses assisting with the surgery rushed to the fridge to take a unit.
Not long after that, a lab tech approached me and announced, “We need that blood.” As soon as the paperwork was completed, she snatched up the unit the blood I had just given, and it went directly into the patient within the hour!
It was one of the most challenging operations the medical staff had ever faced on the Africa Mercy, and I felt blessed that I had helped in my own small way. God had put me where I needed to be to help save a life.
(Photos: Courtesy Mercy Ships Canada)