A Day in the Life of a Mercy Ships Nurse

By Katie TenHoeve RN, BSN

I have always had the desire to be a nurse in parts of the world where healthcare is limited.

By being a nurse with Mercy Ships, I was able to be a part of a team that seeks to follow the 2000-year-old model of Jesus to provide hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. One day in February 2014, I was scrolling through Facebook, and I came across Sevenly’s campaign for Mercy Ships. I clicked on the link to explore more about the organization, and I decided I would love to be a part of the Mercy Ships mission. That is where my journey with Mercy Ships began.

Katie TenHoeve, Pediatric Ward Nurse (Photo Credit: Justine Forrest)

Katie TenHoeve, Pediatric Ward Nurse (Photo Credit: Justine Forrest)

The opportunity to volunteer as a nurse with Mercy Ships was a dream come true. I have just returned home from eight months in Madagascar where I served as a pediatric nurse.

I am overwhelmed when I look back at the time that I spent there.

I learned a lot, I made unforgettable relationships, and I had the honor of witnessing and playing a small part in the stories of hope and healing that Mercy Ships provides.

On the ship, I would walk down the hall from where I lived to the hospital. The wards were filled with sweet patients – some waiting to go to surgery, some in the process of recovering and some anxiously awaiting to be discharged back home to their community. Depending on the surgery, patients would stay on the ship from a couple of days to weeks.

Ortho kids play in the hallway in the hospital (Photo Credit: Deb Louden)

Often walking into work looked like this: Kids would run up to you, calling your name from their beds or stretching their arms wide for hugs. The caregivers and older patients would smile and exclaim “Salama!” which means hello in Malagasy. These greetings are so special because, upon first meeting these patients, they did not smile or were unable to run or stretch out their arms for hugs.

Some had contractures left from untreated burns, some had bent bones in their legs, some had painful hernias, some had large growths on their bodies, some had facial tumors, and some had cleft lips and palates. A lot of these conditions occur because of a lack of resources and access to proper healthcare. This is where Mercy Ships plays a big role in providing free surgeries, as well as training to local healthcare professionals to encourage them and help them to learn how to help themselves once Mercy Ships leaves the country.

A day as a ward nurse for Mercy Ships was in a lot of ways similar to nursing in a hospital at home. Doctors do rounds, and we do vital signs and assessments, give medications, change dressings, prepare patients for surgery, and care for them after surgery.

But there are some aspects to nursing on the ship that are very different.

To begin with, the ship has volunteers from over 35 nations which creates opportunities to learn about and share knowledge with other nurses. Besides differences in culture, there are different forms of measurement, terminology, and techniques in healthcare throughout the world. Next there is a language barrier that we have with the patients that we do not have as often at home. The native language in Madagascar is Malagasy, so we need a translator for every patient.

Katie with Lixia on Deck 7 (Photo Credit: Katie Keegan)

We had the privilege of working with some of the wonderful locals, called “day-crew,” that are hired by Mercy Ships. The day-crew who work in the hospital have the main duty of translating, but they also help around the wards. The day-crew are very special to us because they are our voice to our patients. They also play a vital part in teaching us about their culture and language, which helps us better care for the patients. Another difference between a hospital at home and the ship’s hospital is that the ship is broken into three main wards by surgery specialty. So instead of the patients having a private room, they were all together in one big room.

The culture of community in Madagascar is so strong that they do not care that they have complete strangers next to them.

The kids in the ward play with one another, and the older patients sit in bed and talk for hours. The wards almost become like a big family that love spending time with one another. Coloring, nail painting, dance parties, singing, crafts, hitting balloons back and forth, bubbles and playing games (matching games, Jenga and dominoes) are normal and frequent activities. Everyone’s favorite part of the day is “Deck Seven Time.” This is an hour every afternoon when the nurses and day-crew take the patients outside on the seventh deck to get some fresh air and sunshine.

Katie pushes Ange on the swing on Deck 7 (Photo Credit: Catrice Wulf)

Discharges are done in the morning, and patients are admitted in the afternoon on the day before their surgery. Often, there are mixed emotions when they arrive to the ship. Some are happy and excited, and others come in feeling defeated, rejected and ashamed.

As the patients spend time on the ship, they meet other patients with the same or similar problems. They build relationships with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and day-crew who love and truly care for them. As a result, these patients leave with smiles and a newfound confidence. Caring for these patients every day is such a blessing. The love that we pour into them is poured right back into us.

Erissa displays a Zebu she made out of clay (Photo Credit: Catrice Wulf)

Surgery for a physical condition is why our patients come, but they leave with their bodies, hearts and spiritshealed.

Patients come to the ship with many goals and dreams – like to look “normal,” to not be teased, to be able to go to school, to be able to write or color, to dance or to play sports. As the patients spend time on the ward recovering from surgery, it is so special to see the transformations that are happening and to see these dreams start becoming a reality. On the ship there is an amazing atmosphere of fun, love, joy, compassion and teamwork that flood each ward and radiate from the patients, nurses, doctors, and day-crew.

The wonderful nurses of Ward A (Photo Credit: Kayla Hess) 

The opportunity to be a nurse in the wards of this floating hospital in Madagascar and to work with these loving people was an experience that I will never forget and will always cherish. I am also so thankful that there are individuals that are willing to give of themselves to support Mercy Ships so that the resources are available to provide free life-changing surgery… surgery that improves the lives of so many precious people, one person at a time.


To learn more about volunteering with Mercy Ships, click here.
To see our collection inspired by Mercy Ships, click here.


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