Nicole Moen plays pattycake with a young girl aboard the Mercy ship.

Nicole Moen plays pattycake with a young girl aboard the Mercy ship.

Maple Ridge nurse part of mission of Mercy

Nicole Moen is helping people heal at half way around the world as a volunteer nurse on the world's largest hospital ship Africa Mercy

A teenager had been married at the age of 13. She was with child that same year. She had a four-day labour, with nobody to help deliver. The baby was stillborn, and she was left disabled, childless and incontinent. Her husband abandoned her.

A Guinean man had been captured by an armed rebel group. They put a lock into his face – going up his nose, through the roof of his mouth, and out his mouth. He got free of his captors, but was left maimed and unable to breath.

A little girl had fallen in a cooking fire when she was an infant. Her mother couldn’t afford a hospital stay, so her burned back had to heal at home. Mom knew the infant had to move her arm so it would heal properly, but making her move it caused too much agony in the little girl, and there was no pain medication. The burns healed, but left a web of scar tissue that fused her upper arm to her back, leaving her unable to raise the arm.

Those are just three of the people who were helped by the world’s largest charity hospital ship, Africa Mercy, and by a nurse who grew up in Maple Ridge.

Nicole Moen is a 2006 graduate of Maple Ridge secondary, got her nursing degree at Douglas College, and has been a registered nurse for two years. From Jan. 27 to May 15, she worked on a Mercy ship in Conakry, Guinea.

She said the burn victim was Jaka, “one of my favourite little girls.”

Jaka was just three when she was burned on the back and arm by the open fire, and she healed on the floor of the hut, her mother fanning her injury to try and keep it cool. Jaka arrived on the ship at the age of seven. The arm became greatly immobilized. Over surgery and two months of treatment on the ship, skin from her thigh was grafted onto her armpit, giving her use of the arm.

“She was a shy little girl, but she totally opened up, and taught me her little songs. There was lots of laughing and hugs,” remembers Moen.

“The last time I saw her she was leaving he ship, carrying all her belongings balanced on her head.”

The man who was captured by rebels was Morla, a businessman, had his nose “crushed away” by the lock in his face.

While he was afflicted with a life-changing injury, she said he was still a grateful man, and the Mercy ship at least ensured it would not be life-threatening.

“Nicole look, I can actually breath through my nose,” she remembers him saying.

Such plastic surgeries were the focus of the last two months of the ship’s four-month stay in Africa.

The first two months were spent treating women with obstetric fistulas. Fistula is one of the most devastating of all pregnancy-related disabilities. Usually the result of obstructed labor coupled with a lack of skilled medical care, obstetric fistula most often leads to permanent incontinence.

More than 90 per cent of African women affected by obstetric fistula are rejected from their husbands and society due to their childlessness. They become social outcasts, isolated from family, friends, village and religious life. They work alone, eat alone, and are not allowed to cook for anyone else. They sleep in separate huts and often end up on the streets, begging for their survival. Fistula repair and healing can restore women to their families and societies.

Since 2003, Mercy Ships surgeons have performed more than 2,880 procedures to correct obstetric fistula and related issues on 2,490 patients on board hospital ships in Africa.

Moen worked with many of these women who were restored to health.

“They have a possibility of a life and to be respected in their culture,” she said.

Cataract surgeries are common – procedures deemed routine in the developed world to restore people’s vision. Moen saw skinny babies come on board the ship to have cleft palates repaired, and leave chubby and healthy.

There is also a dental surgery associated with Africa Mercy, and staff go on land to see patients.

Working on the ship is giving people in need their ultimate gift.

She said “love the world” is the simple operational model that the organization pursues – give people what they need. They will dock in a country for six to 10 months at a time, with a ship that has all the resources necessary, from a CT scanner to surgeries.

The Africa Mercy is operated by a non-profit organization and staffed by volunteers from around the world. Canadians are the third most common volunteers on the ship, behind Americans and Dutch, but Koreans, Australians and people from around the world volunteer.

“It’s addictive,” said Moen. “You want to quit your job and go.”

That is impossible, because even though they are working volunteers, the Mercy Ship staff have to pay their own expenses – it cost Moen $700 per month to be involved.

She said there opportunities for many trades and professions, as electricians, plumbers and dietitians are all needed on board. Of the 450 people who live on the hospital ship, roughly half are medical personnel.

Moen has been given a one-year leave of absence from working at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock, so she will return to work there, but the Mercy Ship will be in her thoughts.

“When I can organize it, I’m going to go back.”

The Africa Mercy is scheduled to dock in Point Noise, in the Republic of Congo, for 10 months beginning in August.

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