28 April 2012

laughing heart

Warning: haphazard thoughts ensue.

I'm leaving Africa in two days...TWO DAYS!  I can hardly believe it.  While I'm very excited for what is planned in the next few months, the truth is that I have shear discomfort thinking about what I will be doing in the latter part of the summer, when all my scheduled plans are complete.  

Now, I know that God has a plan for me, etc., and that I shouldn't spend my time worrying, etc.  I can accept this.  What I'm struggling with right now is finding a balance between resting in this but also being proactive in figuring out what is the next chapter for my life.  

"In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps."  Proverbs 16:9.

I found the following poem yesterday and I love it.  It's exactly what a needed to read as I prepare to finish my chapter on the Africa Mercy.  

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

by Charles Bukowski

21 April 2012


In ten days time, I will be home!  I can hardly believe how quickly my time here on the BWB (big white boat) is  coming to an end.  But this post is not about me going home.

The following story and photos come from Danielle, one of our truly dedicated ward nurses.  She writes about one of our patients, Chantal, and I have posted her story in its entirety, so all credit for the following should go to Danielle and her blog.  I'd advise you to grab a few tissues before reading.  Here is Chantal's story:

A small glimpse of Eternity

In my last post I told you about a young woman named Chantal who has been with us since February.  Every outreach we seem to have that one special patient who becomes like family and steals our hearts away.  This outreach, Chantal is that woman.  She is a 25 year old woman from Ghana who had burn contractures on her neck and arm fixed with skin grafting last time the ship was in the area in 2009.  Initially she was a wonderful success story with a completely healed skin graft.  Shortly after her recovery and after the ship had left, due to a chronically suppressed immune system, her graft reopened and she was left with a large, painful, infected wound covering her right chest, shoulder and arm.  For 3 years she suffered with this wound, unable to move her arm and doubled over in pain with no signs of hope or relief.  That is, until the ship returned this past January to Togo.

I can just imagine her reaction at the news.  Could it be? Is it true? After 3 years of intense pain, rejection and haughty eyes constantly on her, the smell of infection haunting her every move, the inability to hold, care, cuddle, and love on her 4 year old daughter.  And now that big white metal floating box that once gave her hope and healing is back!  Normally the ship does not take on medical patients because we aren't equipped to handle care to that extent.  With few exceptions, our patients are relatively healthy people who are in need of surgical help- to remove tumors, fix birth defects, hernias, bone and joint deformities, burn contractures, etc.  Because Chantal was a past patient of ours, we took her case on in an attempt to help her heal again and regain function.  I could go on and on about the ins and outs of her months and months of medical treatment, but it can be summed up into a long road of infections, antibiotics, agonizing daily wound care, physiotherapy, surgery after surgery, skin graft after skin graft, moments of hope for the medical team, followed by moments of disappointment and confusion after each failed antibiotic treatment and surgery. 

About 1 month ago, as I shared in a past blog, Chantal accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior and redeemer.  For a while she was in higher spirits and had more pep and motivation in her step. (And she didn't mind my embarrassing dancing anymore!)  But shortly after that her tired body had had enough, our last ditch attempt at antibiotics failed, sepsis took over, and we were at the end of the road for medical healing.  Our medical regime turned towards comfort and pain management instead of aggressive treatment.  

 I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the last few evenings as Chantal's nurse.  She phased in and out of lethargy and alertness, and I was able to be there for her awake moments, to make her smile a few last times, and to talk with her and give her comfort.  After spending months down in the dark, window-less ward with few opportunities to see sunlight, my friend June and I packed Chantal up in a comfy wheel chair full of pillows and took her up to the top deck of the ship to sit for an hour and enjoy the sunset and warm breeze.  It was a moment I will never forget as it was in her last 48 hours of life in that tired, broken body.

Last night, in and out of moments of clarity, Chantal was able to enjoy some more fresh air from the comfort of her bed as she was rolled in front of a big door right at sea level that was opened especially for her.  In a very peaceful moment, with people who cared so much for her sitting by her side, Chantal said "Jesus is here, Jesus is here", and she was finally taken home with our Lord and left her broken, hurting body behind.

It was a sad and difficult evening for us nurses and caregivers who had poured out so much love and energy onto Chantal over the past few months, but our sadness was only selfish because it is truly a joyous moment that she has finally gone home!  It is easy for us, as logically minded medical professionals, to feel like we failed Chantal, that our efforts and the pain we put her through were all for nothing.  Why would God let her go through this only for medical treatment to fail?  But as one of my colleagues said, God was never surprised by what happened.  Everything that happened with Chantal was exactly how God had it planned all along.  She was in constant pain for over 5 years- struggling from burns, wounds, and infections.  She didn't receive medical success while she was here, but she did have a better outcome than most of the patients we see-- she received spiritual healing, which is the primary purpose we are here.  For the first time in a long time, Chantal is without pain, without wounds and infections, and has a new, restored body.  Not only that, but before she left this earth, Jesus came to the ship, sat in the ward with her, and took her home.

It was a sad, happy, frustrating, relieving, and incredible experience, all mixed together.  God had a purpose in Chantal and it was faithfully fulfilled.. she came to the ship to meet Jesus so that she could go home to Eternity with Him.  For the first time Chantal is walking down the golden streets of heaven with no wound, no infection, and no pain, hand in hand with our Creator.  The biggest success stories from this outreach are the hearts that are redeemed by Jesus, and Chantal has helped to refocus us and remind us of our true purpose here-- to share the love of Christ.


Last week, I celebrated my 24th birthday (12 April).  This year was way different than last year's birthday, where I was in a Land Rover for 6 hours, headed into the Sierra Leonean countryside (Read about that here!).  Festivities this year began as soon as I walked out the door on Thursday morning.  The ship custom is to decorate the wall outside of the birthday person's cabin, and my friend Miriam was definitely on a creative streak while I was fast asleep.  She chose a "The Bachelor" theme and pasted friends' faces on formal photos of contestants from the television show.

After admiring her handiwork, I headed to work, where the entire OR department sang "Happy Birthday" to me in our morning hallway meeting.  Knowing that one of my least favorite things is glitter, Missy and Ginger then presented me with a homemade, glitter-covered card, signed by the OR staff.  They also baked a chocolate cake, which was enjoyed throughout the day.  Midway through the morning, four of our day volunteers, Holali, Marie, Thomas, and Gratias, quietly filed into my office and stood in a line around me.  On Thomas' cue, the four of them sang "Happy Birthday," not once, but twice!  First in Ewe, and then in French...I couldn't help but enjoy their very excited performance!

After lunch, I couldn't help but notice that several hospital folk were starting to sport fake neck tattoos.  In addition to glitter, Missy and Ginger also know that neck tattoos kind of creep me out.  Armed with this fact, the had secretly distributed tattoos to dozens of our staff, which they then proceeded to show off, much to my amused disgust!

Olga, myself, Jane, Wijneke, and Ginger, grossing me out with neck tattoos.  Jane's was so big that it look like her throat was slit if you looked fast enough.

Miriam, with a particularly disgusting neck tattoo.

Saturday night, Miriam and Melissa threw me a birthday party/game night, which was excellent!  Donovan, our managing director, and his wife, Mae, graciously hosted the event in their family cabin, giving us much more space than we would have had otherwise.  We played the group favorite, Catch Phrase, as well as Families and Salad Bowl, all while filling up on delicious baked goods.  

Chocolate cake, topped with my new favorite candy: Pineapple Lumps!  The New Zealandese confection is a pineapple-flavored center (somewhere in between a marshmallow and taffy), covered in chocolate.

The spread of sweets: Girl Scout cookies, Mae's famous sugar cookies, chocolate cake, carrot cake, Murray's Chocolate Frij Thing, and homemade raspberry cheesecake cups.

Back row (L to R): Mark, Sam, Josh, Cyle, Miriam, me, Kris.  Second row: Michelle, Kris, Melissa, Angie, Kayleigh, Melissa.  Third row: Candace, Amy, Mae, Hannah.  Front row: Murray, Donovan, and the top of Jordan's head.

After the party, a smaller group of us gathered in the Queen's Lounge to watch "Titanic" in honor of the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking.  We all reminisced about the first time we saw it and couldn't believe that it had been 15 years since the movie first was released.  It was a great way to end a fantastic, sugar-filled evening.  I can only hope that everyone out there can feel as blessed as I did on my birthday, at least once in their lives!  Thank you to everyone who made it such a special few days!

So that makes two consecutive birthdays in Africa...I wonder where I'll be next year?

13 April 2012

risen indeed

Welcome to the special Easter addition!

As you may recall, Easter on board the Africa Mercy is quite a special occasion.  You can read about my experience last year on this post.  This year was similar, but one big difference was the production of Godspell.  A few weeks ago, Chaplaincy announced that the ship would be putting on a production of the famed 1970s musical for Easter and that anyone interested should sign-up.  I had my 15 minutes of fame back in elementary school, when I was in several church musicals (Angels Aware and Sending Out Love, anyone?), so I expressed an interest to help with a more behind-the-scenes element.  It was soon decided that I would be in charge of props and costumes.  Godspell is basically a crazy, 1970s "hippy-fied" retelling of the book of Matthew.  In the original movie, there is a lot of bright colors and tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans and afros...you know, all that stereotypical 1970s stuff.  For the sake of making the production more relatable (read: not scaring away the non-Americans who probably lived a very different decade), I translated the crazy costumes into paint-splattered garments.  It was a bit time-consuming, but the end result was totally worth it.  I found old clothes (shirts, a skirt, scrubs, etc.) in the ship's Boutique (our free, thrift-store-esque dumping ground) and covered them in acrylic paint.

My costume helper, Brenda, also did a fantastic job making special outfits for Jesus, Judas, and John the Baptist, as well as special prop costumes.  The show was one night only, on Good Friday, and we had a packed house!  There was a lot of laughter, so I think it's safe to assume that everyone enjoyed themselves.

Saturday night a group of us went out to eat to a local restaurant called Greenfield's.  One of our friend's, Amy, parents were visiting, so with them as the guests of honor, we filled up on delicious, brick oven pizza in the airy outdoor courtyard of the restaurant.  Greenfield's is one of  my favorite places here in Lomé and I plan on going back at least once more before I leave.

On Sunday morning, I got up early (5:30!) for the sunrise service on Deck 8.  Despite still being dark outside, the air was thick and humidity hung in the air.  The crowd was definitely large than last year and we spent about an hour in worship as the sun came up and lit up the port.  Workers in the next bay over gathered in a small cluster to see what was going on and they were soon singing and dancing right along with us!  After going back in side, friends and I got together during the coffee and snack hour and shared some blueberry coffee cake that I had made the day before.  Then I ironed my clothes, took a quick shower, and went to the International Lounge for main Sunday service.  We opened with the customary ship responsive call of "Christos Anesti!"..."Alithos Anesti!" which is Greek for "Christ is risen" and "Truly, He is risen!"   Then we sang traditional Easter hymns like "The Old Rugged Cross," "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "  I love these older hymns and they were a welcome treat, contrasting nicely with our usual, more contemporary song selections.  The service also included Communion, the children's choir, and the adult bell ensemble.

My favorite part, however, was at the end, when about 40 crew members went up front, each representing a language or nationality on board.  They went down the line saying "Christ is risen," in their native language or dialect.  It was incredible to see all of the diversity on the ship represented in such a simple way.  Isaiah 14:26-27 says "This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?"  It never ceases to amaze me that the Africa Mercy actually functions.  If you look at all that it has going against it, then it really logic would say it shouldn't work.  A crew of nearly 40 different nationalities and even more languages?  Different cultures, customs, and practices, living and working together in a 500 foot long metal box?  Delivering first-world medical care in the forgotten regions of the world...for free?  The world says that the ship should not work, but God says differently.  As the passage states, his hand is outstretched and no one can change that!  His hand covers all nations; even those that the world has forgotten, He has not missed one second. 

After church, we gathered to take some photos and then we got in line for EASTER BRUNCH!

Me and my buddy (and occasional shadow) Savannah, also known as "Small Small"

Group jump shot

This year, the dining room had two lines: one for the "BR" of brunch and the other for the "UNCH" of brunch.  We had bacon, egg bake, home fries, bacon-wrapped figs, baked ham, baked pasta, mashed potatoes, meatballs and brown gravy, baked pasta and more.  Then there was the infamous table overflowing with fresh fruit, breads, cheese, cookies, and cupcakes.  There were even caramel-covered apples!  The galley team definitely went out of their way to provide with a feast...I didn't eat the rest of the day after I finished!

On Easter Monday, it is a ship tradition to have the Easter Open Cabins.  People volunteer to open up their cabins to the crew and serve special snacks.  You can meander throughout the ship in the evening, going from cabin to cabin (10 participating cabins in all) and just mingle and snack with the other crew.  This year, I made it to 7 of the 10 and ate plenty of hors d'oeuvres.

It was hard to shake off the four-day weekend and get back into the work week, but we all managed to do it.  Thank goodness it is almost the weekend again!

21 March 2012


Last week was full of fun surprises, starting with an incredible blessing on Tuesday afternoon.  You may recall that a few weeks ago I got to go to eye screening, like I did regularly in Sierra Leone.  While I was pre-screening patients, I came across Afeignindou, a young man with burn contractures to his left eyelids, having been burned as a child.  Basically he had no eyelids on his left eye.  He had come to eye screening not knowing that we were really only looking for cataract patients.  Having knowledge of the plastics program from last year, I felt like he could be a potential candidate for our plastics surgeon, Dr. Tertius Venter of South Africa.  We proceeded to photograph Afeignindou and told him that if we'd be able to help, then we would phone him.  When I returned to the ship, I sent his information to our screening team who scheduled him to attend our plastics screening with Dr. Tertius.  After coming to the ship and being seen, he was scheduled for the first week of plastics!  I was thrilled to hear this--the entire story felt like a "being at the right place and the right time" kind of things.  Since most of the eye team are new crew members, Afeignindou could have easily been sent home since he wasn't a cataract surgery candidate.  However, things aligned that allowed me to cross paths with this patient and get him connected to the right people.

Fast forward to this past week, Afeignindou returned to the ship for a post-op visit.  I got to go out to the dock and meet up with him and chat for a few moments.  With the help of a translator, I learned that he is very happy for his surgery.  I could tell...he couldn't stop smiling!  It was so great to actually see and talk to a patient both before and after and to see his radical transformation.

On Wednesday, I had the unique opportunity to go visit the local Brasserie Benin (BB) factory.  BB is a regional beverage manufacturer and distributor of Coca-Cola products.  BB has partnered with Mercy Ships during our Togo outreach and is providing us with highly discounted Coke products for our snack bar.  Shortly after 9am, three Land Rovers headed for the factory, located about 25 minutes from the port.  After a short welcome, everyone donned reflective safety vests and the men were given hard hats, while the women were only given hair nets!  We proceeded into the factory and first worked our way through the brewery section.  BB produces nine different beers, including Guinness.  As we wound our way through the mixing tanks, fermentation tanks, filters, carbonators, and the like, an employee narrated the entire process.  I didn't get every detail because it was very loud and he was speaking quietly.

Our group near the beer mixing tanks, the one and only Mae Palmer caught off guard.

These are old mixing tanks from years ago, when the brewery was German-owned.  Now they are used to mix syrups for various soft drinks.  This room reminded me of something from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

Old controls with German labels.

Near the fermentation tanks.  There were about 15-20 of these massive silo-like structures.

After the brewery, we went into the bottling plant and saw the entire process of canning (there were working on a fruit cocktail drink) and bottling (cleaning old bottles, bottling beer, and bottling Coca-Cola).  We also got to see the quality control lab, the freezers, and the warehouse.  The whole operation looked just like something in the U.S.  After the tour, we were treated to light snacks and free beverage products produced at the plant.  We even got goodie bags with a t-shirt, a hat, pen, playing cards, etc.  It was a great way to spend the morning!

One of the canning machines.

The fruit cocktail drink, heading to be packaged in boxes.

Along the Coca-Cola bottling line.

The Coca-Cola side of things.

On the way back to the ship from the factory, we passed one of the notable monuments here in Lomé, known locally as "La columbe de la paix," or "The Peace Dove."  It is even cooler looking at night, when it's covered with blue Christmas lights.  We saw it all lit up last month when were headed to the U.S. Embassy to watch the Super Bowl.  Togo has been a relatively peaceful country, with no major wars in modern times, making this a very appropriate monument.  

Another surprise from this week was getting to move cabins!  Since arriving over a year ago, I had been living in a 4-berth cabin, on the top bunk.  Overall, I didn't have any major complaints: my roommates were considerate and the room was pleasantly chilly.  But when Janine from HR told me that I could "cabin-sit" in a 3-berth cabin for the remainder of my time here, I jumped at the opportunity.  Since Alan, one of our electricians, would be on vacation until after I leave, his berth was open, and so I was the lucky one to get the upgrade!  A 3-berth comes with much more privacy as I have my own "pod" to myself.  Also, it's not under the dining room, so I don't have to listen to chairs constantly being dragged across the floor.

With all this excitement, who knows that the next few weeks will hold!

"Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, so we may sing for joy to the end of lives.  
Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery!  
Replace the evil years with good.  
Let us see your miracles again; let our children see your glory at work.  
And may the Lord our God show us his approval and make our efforts successful.  
Yes, make our efforts successful!"  
[Psalm 90:14-17]

05 March 2012

one year

Why is Sibi Julie so excited?

 (Besides the fact that she had her cleft lip repaired a few weeks ago?)

Because today is marks one year that I arrived to the Africa Mercy!

I started here, in Freetown, Sierra Leone:

And after one year (filled with hard work, prayer, laughter, good food, bad food, new friends, old friends, loneliness, companionship, homesickness, surprises, several plane rides, lots of movies, encouraging words, learning experiences, a few tears, sunburns, chimpanzees, starry nights, surreal sunsets, and too many cute kids to count)...

...I've ended up here in Lomé, Togo!  (Nestled quietly next to the two small gray ships that comprise the Togolese Navy, no less!)

And needless to say, I couldn't have gotten here without YOU!  Yes, YOU!

YOU, Taylor, with your prayers solely for my luggage.

YOU, Kari Ann, with your overwhelming hospitality and encouragement.

YOU, Moma (and Popa too!), with your faithful blog comments.  (Even if you didn't recognize your only grandson when I surprised you with my early homecoming!)

YOU, Kelly and Mary Elaine, with your ability to pretty much always make me laugh.

YOU, all ye Funterns, with the sheer joy you bring to my life.

YOU, family (and Alyssa!), with your unique ability to both drive me crazy and keep me sane at the same time, all through love.

I so wish that I could thank each and every one of you by name, but unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day.  If you are reading this, there is a very good chance that you somehow played a role in my being here right at this moment.  Maybe you said a prayer, maybe you wrote a check, maybe you sent me an awesome CD, maybe you shared an encouraging word when I was feeling down, maybe you just said something to make me laugh.  Regardless of your involvement, you have all been so instrumental and I can't thank you enough. 

Here's to a crazy, wild, wonderful, life-changing, awe-inspiring year!

19 February 2012


Here on the ship, silly videos are regularly made for general announcements.  We have a video reminding us to take just two-minute showers and a video reminding us to keep the reception area quiet, and so forth.  Last year in Sierra Leone, I was in a video about knowing how to use the Land Rover radios.  So, without further ado: