Lynchburg nursing graduate Mary Deis ’16 recently spent 11 weeks off the port of Conakry, Guinea.
Her home was the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship operated by the nonprofit Mercy Ships. Along with other nurses, doctors, dental assistants, and other medical professionals, Deis provided medical care to people who lack access to care in their home country.
Originally from Forest, Virginia, Deis thought that Lynchburg College, now University of Lynchburg, was too close to home. But after taking a tour of campus, she felt the close community at Lynchburg. “I got a great feeling that I would fit in and find good friends at Lynchburg,” Deis said. In addition to her nursing major, Deis minored in Spanish and ran track and cross country.
Deis learned about Mercy Ships while she was still in college. Although she researched other organizations that run medical missions, she was ultimately led back to Mercy Ships. This program seemed to be the most organized to help her make an impact doing what she loves, she said.
On August 14, she took unpaid leave from her job on the internal medicine floor at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center to allow her to go volunteer. She returned October 27.
Deis describes Mercy Ships as a floating hospital ship with the feel of a little town. Life there feels like a mix between a military base and a college campus: everything is ordered and kept on a tight schedule, but the living suites, cafeteria, and frequent social events give off a college vibe. “The running joke is that we live with our 450 closest friends,” Deis said.
Mercy Ships is more than a workplace, she said. It is a community that works together to improve lives.
Deis spent most of her time working in the clubfoot clinic. Clubfoot is a birth defect where the foot is twisted into an abnormal position. It is correctable in children, but treatment works best before the age of two. Deis helped children up to 8, including some patients who needed surgery. She and other nurses helped stretch patients’ feet and made casts to hold the feet in the stretched position.
In addition to taking care of clubfoot, Deis treated patients for malaria, skin diseases, and malnourishment. She also spent two afternoons each week working in the crew clinic, which provided care to the volunteer crew and the local individuals who worked on the ship.
Evenings and weekends were filled with activities like a running club, trips to the market, relaxing on the ship, or hiking on nearby islands.
Deis loved how everyone she worked with on Mercy Ships had a generous heart and wanted to be there. Often people go to work because they have to and they lose passion for their work, but aboard Africa Mercy, the volunteers were dedicated and enthusiastic.
Working in the new environment presented new challenges. Deis had to be careful to order a sufficient quantity of all supplies, because there was no way to easily replenish items that got used up. Once, she was sent to get biscuits on a lunch break, and she had to work around language barriers in the local market.
“There were more hoops to jump through to get things done,” she said. “Of course, it was necessary, and I was happy to do it, it just made everything a little harder.”
Despite the challenges, she loved making an impact on people. She felt that her college experience prepared her for the active environment on the ship.
The academic programs at Lynchburg helped her, too. For example, she was able to teach other volunteers about the importance of speaking directly to patients, rather than the translators, in order to help patients feel more a part of their care. That is something she had practiced in nursing simulations at Lynchburg, and Deis was grateful that she could share this with other volunteers and make a difference in the clinics.
“It prepared me in making clinical judgement calls and being flexible,” she said. “Before I came, I’d never worked with pediatrics or done anything with clubfoot. So it was all new. I had to learn quickly and figure out my own role as I am the only nurse in my clinic. Without my training from Lynchburg and at VCU, it wouldn’t have been possible.”