As a nursing student at Olympic College, Sarah Christensen, ADN, ‘11, BSN ‘12, was already dreaming of helping people half a world away. In 2017, she achieved that goal, spending four months volunteering with Mercy Ships on Africa Mercy, the world’s largest non-military hospital ship. Below, she talks about helping women from Cameroon reclaim their lives after agonizing injuries and her plans for the future.
What is Mercy Ships?
It’s an international, faith-based nonprofit that travels to some of the poorest countries in the world, providing free health care. Since 1978, Mercy Ships has delivered $1.43 billion in charity care to 2.64 million people.
How did you get involved?
My cousin volunteered for Mercy Ships more than 10 years ago as a housekeeper and I heard about it from her. I decided I wanted to go as a nurse. I had always wanted to be a nurse, but Mercy Ships was one of the reasons I decided to go ahead. You have to have two years of nursing experience to volunteer. Once I had that, I applied.
What was your job?
I worked in the women’s health unit as a ward nurse and took care of patients. Most of the patients had obstetric fistulas, an abnormal hole caused by a difficult birth. The baby’s head gets stuck and usually the baby dies. The hole causes incontinence of the bowel and bladder, and these ladies are often excommunicated from their villages. We fix the hole. It’s a disease of poverty that’s almost nonexistent in the Western world. There are two million cases worldwide, including 33,000 in Cameroon where we were. Often, these women are seen by their culture as worthless. It was an honor to care for them.
What experience on Africa Mercy had the biggest impact on you?
We had a patient, Mama Jose, who had a fistula. She ended up being on the ship for about three weeks. After the ladies have the surgeries and they’re successful, we have a ceremony for them. We make them a brand-new dress and headdress and do their makeup and hair and give them jewelry. And we celebrate with dancing and singing. They celebrate being a woman again. At her ceremony, Mama Jose shared that she had never encountered such love as she found on the ship and that she was healed even before she had surgery. It was special because some ladies can’t be healed. About nine out of 10 surgeries are successful. But, sometimes, even if we can’t heal their bodies, we can heal their souls, and hearing her say that was really special.
What’s next for you?
I’m working at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor as a medical floor nurse. I’m considering going back to school to get a master’s in education. I would love to be a nurse educator. I enjoy teaching. Nursing school can be very challenging, and I want to be an encouraging presence and try to make the process of becoming a nurse more enjoyable and fun.