Area nurse serves aboard 'mercy ship'

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Sarah Johnson works with a patient in the wards aboard the Africa Mercy.

Sarah Johnson

The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Caring for others is at the heart of the nursing profession.

Sometimes that calling takes nurses across town to a doctor’s office or a hospital. But one local nurse’s desire to help others has taken her halfway across the world.

For the past five months, nurse Sarah Johnson, who hails from Rocky Mount, has been in Guinea, West Africa, volunteering aboard the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship at sea. 

Johnson, 31, who usually works at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, is experiencing a different lifestyle than she was accustomed to at home. 

“The most interesting thing is I live in a cabin with other five other girls and you live where you work basically,” Johnson said. “That type of environment is very interesting to be in.

“It’s really nice because if I have a day off, I can revisit my patients and just see how their day is, to look in on them and just kind of give them a wave and a smile and let them know even if we’re not working on that day, we’re still thinking about them and hoping for a full recovery.”

Johnson also works in a diverse environment.

“Life on board is interesting in that there’s a lot of crew members that come and go and we have 400 crew from 40 different nations,” she said. “Not only are you entering into the culture of Guinea, you are also being surrounded by all these different cultures from people all around the world. 

“It’s interesting to live side by side and work side by side with people have different perspectives and point of views and see different scopes of practices.”    

The ship fosters a sense of community, in which patients support other patients, she said.

“Because of the close quarters, you see the patients cheering each other on,” Johnson said. “There was this 3-year-old boy that was having such a hard time and this woman who had all of her children at home and was by herself here having surgery. She became like a mother to him and nurtured him and helped him ease his tears. It was just a beautiful thing to see.”

Being able to volunteer like this has been a dream of Johnson’s for many years. 

“Since I was in high school, different cultures have always fascinated me and for me personally, my faith definitely plays a role in what I do day in and day out,” she said. “I work with people from all different backgrounds, all different religions.”

Johnson discovered Mercy Ships about three years ago and found out that a friend from nursing school was volunteering with the organization. After several years of preparing for this opportunity, Johnson decided this year she would try volunteering with the group.  

“The timing felt right,” she said. “There’s a lot of preparation to do for something like this. I’m taking a leave of absence from my job and you’re volunteering so you’re paying to come work.”

One of the biggest challenges that Johnson, who had worked as an intensive care and labor and delivery nurse, has had to deal with is learning how to take care of maxillofacial patients, who are receiving treatment for a broad range of disorders affecting the facial complex and skeleton.

“I had to be trained to take care of postoperative maxillofacial patients,” Johnson said. “There’s a huge need in this part of the world for these surgeries.  A lot of these patients have enormous tumors that are pressing on nerves or even shifting the way their eyes are located.” 

Being able to help others remove painful tumors and regain their sense of self-worth and pride is very rewarding, Johnson said.  

“We’ve seen these patients withdrawn from society and become ashamed of the facial tumor they now have,” she said. “It’s a really cool thing to go out and walk in town and see a patient from a month ago and you’re striking up a conversation and you see how happy they are and how much they’re thriving and they feel like they can re-enter society.

“There’s been so many pleasant surprises and so many heartwarming things that have happened since I’ve been here.”

Life off the ship also has created opportunities for Johnson to serve people in need. She has been able to visit orphans and see them laugh and smile.  

“You’re able to spend time with these children and pour out love and joy on to them that they may not have seen before,” Johnson said.  

There is a special place for impoverished children where Johnson and many of her shipmates visit once a week. 

“It’s called the School for the Destitute and some of the children are orphans and some live in impoverished conditions,” she said. “This is a school that was created to cater to those children.  What we do is once a week is we sing and we dance and we play and do crafts with them. It brings them so much joy and brings us a lot of joy.  Their laughter and smiles are just priceless.”

The work doesn’t end when Johnson and other Mercy Ships volunteers leave.  

“They (Mercy Ships) believe in trying to nurture the pre-existing health care system and to help the resources already there,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Mercy Ships provides the communities they serve with the tools and resources to advance in the fields of technology, medicine and agriculture.      

All of these things are being built and people are being trained specifically to address issues that are ongoing,” Johnson said. 

“When they(Mercy Ships) were here five years ago, they had numerous — probably hundreds — of babies and kids with cleft lips and cleft palates,” Johnson said. “We came back this year and the screening team was pleasantly surprised because there were only six.”

Johnson said her trip has been full of blessings as she has been able to see things in a different light.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to take an extended period of time to travel outside of America and to live somewhere, to be outside of my comfort zone, to live simply, to live on less and to interact with a culture I didn’t know before,” Johnson said.