Sunday, February 28, 2010


Oh community life...
For those of you not aware of my current living situation, let me bring you up to date. I live on a 500 ft. ship with roughly 400 other people. We are currently docked off the coast of West Africa in a country called Togo. That number of 400 is slightly deceiving though, because over 1200 people are known to come through the doors of the Africa Mercy in any given 10 month to 1 year period.
I see my dentist, my doctor, my banker, my friends, my hairdresser, and handfuls of near-strangers at every meal, two breaks a day, and randomly throughout the day.
I work on the 3rd deck of the ship where the hospital is, exactly 13 stairs away from my bedroom.
I live with three other girls in what they call a 4 berth cabin and we are totally blessed because we have a small common 'pod' as I would like to call it, with a window (that looks out onto shipping containers on a dusty dock) which is more than a lot of people can say.
We are a fully functioning ship with a captain, officers, 'deckies', engineers and electricians.
We are also a fully functioning hospital with full time surgeons, nurses, lab techs, and pharmacists.
The kitchen is the 'galley', I live on the 'aft' end of the ship and the ceiling is the 'bulkhead' (or deckhead. Shoot, I can never remember that one)
We have fire drills where we 'abandon ship' and stand pirate watch when we sail.
Oh, and we all come from around 40 different countries.

If that isn't bizarre enough, don't forget, we are parked in Africa.

I eat dinner every night with friends who have become my adopted family. We sit and talk about our days, pick up on those whose mood seems off, laugh over our differences and at ourselves in general. A couple times a week we go to our respective departmental devotionals, community meetings, and church. We sit and play card games in the evenings, do a group bible study on Wednesdays, and pull together every pillow and blanket we have and sprawl out on the floor for movie nights.
When one person goes for a Rooibos, (our choice South African tea here on the ship) they never have to ask if anyone wants one, but rather get a show of hands for how many they need to make, we already know how the others take theirs.
(Joanna-half hot water, half cold water, straight up. JB-straight tea. Michiel-one and a half sugars. Suzanne-one sugar. Paul-honey. Amy-straight. Anouchka-no tea, but a glass of water. Sandra-no tea, but fill nalgene with water)

Outside of the steel walls, several hundred thousand West Africans are living their lives in the small city of Lome, showing us the true definition of what community lived out looks like. They care for each other, cook with each other, spend Sunday afternoons after church dancing and socializing (and even include the random yovo's who happened upon their local spot in their meal plans).
When one is sick, the others pull together for the hospital bill. They care for each other's children, and help carry heavy loads.

At home so many of us have social boundries that cause unspoken divides. At home, if I held one of my patients for more than a minute or two, most parents would not be impressed.
Here, I kiss the little boy who needs an IV, and cuddle crying babies for hours. I get running hugs when I walk down the hallway, and I talk for hours with people and nurses from all over the world who happen to know exactly what draws me to this place and keeps me here. I have an overwhelming sense when I am in Africa that God intended us to live in community, that Africa has a lot to teach us.
When a child is hurting, it is natural to kiss them, to comfort them in any way you can. If your neighbor is in trouble, you should help them. If someone is struggling, you should have no regard for time if it means you can help them.
Yesterday one of our pateints was being discharged and we knew he would have trouble making it to the gate on his new crutches.
"I wish we could drive him to the gate" his nurse said.
"Then lets do that" I replied.
I told the other nurses that I would be right back, I grabbed an available car, loaded up the patient and his mama, and off we went. Destination: Port gate. When we got there the translator casually mentioned they would have difficulty finding a taxi, that we should drive to the nearest roundabout.
Sure I thought, totally appropropriate to be driving around the city in the middle of my shift. When I watched the patient and his mama safely pull away in the taxi I thought to myself how silly it was that I would even hesitate for a second to drive the exta 1 km so that a fellow human would have an easier time getting home.
Stupid unspoken rules.
Right now all of B ward is finishing a movie. Our tv's aren't working down here so two of us nurses collaborated and put together a laptop and Madagascar. I came back from dinner to see everyone, including the traslators, laughing during the credits watching the characters dance. Before that, the other charge nurse called me to see if anyone spoke Fon, the local dialect from Benin. None of our translators did, so I set off for the laundry room. Our volunteer in Housekeeping happens to speak Fon, and so we pulled her from the washing machines and turned her towards the gangway to go help whoever was there to communicate with us.
Life here flows differently. Relationship is the top priority. Helping people, making life more comfortable for others is the rule, not the exception.
Its not about feeding the poor, well, it is, but this point is slightly different. I don't pity the people here, thats the last thing they need. I try and keep my eyes open and learn from them, attempting to adopt thier outlook on life as it relates to others as best I can.

God asks us to 'pour out our souls'(Isaiah 58:10), that 'faith without deeds is dead' (James 2:14), that 'whatever we do for the least of these, we do to Him'(Matthew 25:40). What I almost missed while focusing on those requests was what I am learning in the process, and that is that life is better when lived alongside others. No boundries, no divides.
Thats community.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A love letter

In the last weeks since I've been back on the ship I have had so much affirmation over why I am here, how I feel like long term missions is a perfectly logical answer for what I should do with my life.
Wednesday night I had the opportunity to give a little info session on the Burkitt's program we are working on. I was a bit nervous as I am not a fan of public speaking. When I got to the end of the presentation, to the slides about last year, I found myself looking at the one smiling picture of Maddie, the beautiful face of Rachelle, the sad eyes of Aime, and the reality of Luc's cancer coming back. I felt my throat tighten and the emotion stir in my stomach.
I don't always share with people the stories of these kids in great detail. I tried through this blog last year, but even that at times that felt like vain attempts to capture something too sacred to describe.
In my mind, no one would understand how much those kids mean to me. I would want to tell you about every day if I had to try. Like the afternoon Luc's mom and I were talking about infection control measures and I watched Luc drag m&m's across the cement walls in his house, decorating the drab gray with blue and red sugar, right before popping them into his mouth.
I can talk and type, cry over the stories, desperately trying to bring you right into that room with me, but its not enough. If I close my eyes, I can still feel Luc's hands on the backs of my arms and the weight of his body as I held him. I can feel his small, hot, dusty hand in mine. I can hear his voice on the other end of the phone, and I smile when I recall the day the translator and his mom laughed telling me Luc had said it would be a good idea for me to bring chocolate to him when he and I 'talked' the night before.
Part of me wants to share it all, and part of me wants to hold on tightly, keeping it all to myself.
I can feel the heaviness unlike any other of caring for a child with cancer. The fear you can physically feel when a parent holds out their only child to you that is so sick. More than that though, I know what true hope feels like. What trust really is. How joy is beautiful and oh so precious, especially when it comes in the form of playing with a child.
Before Wednesday, I struggled with sharing thinking no one would truly understand. Looking back (a whole two days, I know, I'm so mature. not.) I see a bit of stubbornness (totally unlike me, I swear...), mixed with some other not-so-pretty character flaws (pride, selfishness, fill in the other blanks), all causing me to stand directly in the way of something God wanted.

As I stood in front of my colleagues, friends, and supporters and talked about Burkitt's I started seeing it. When I got to the first slide about the kids, my eyes opened. When I fought back tears over Maddie, I finally understood. The story of those kids is not mine, I'm not the only one who understands.
Suzanne, look at them. See where I have brought you, look around you. Tell these people about them. I know how much you love these children, now its time to share them. Just let go.

How can I deny God of the glory He deserves? Last year a Burkitt's program all of its own wasn't even a figment of my imagination. He wrote every detail, mapped out everything He wanted me to do, and then showed me on Wednesday how He is bringing it all together. How He is turning even the worst tragedy into something good. He asked me to tell His story.
If we hold onto things too tightly, we can lose sight of the bigger picture.
Mother Theresa said;
"I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world"

I like that.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Someone asked me the other day if I was blogging while sitting here in the cafe on the ship. Blogging? Whats that? I replied.
Its not that nothing has happened that is noteworthy in the last two weeks. Actually, the opposite is true. I have had an incredible, exciting, breathtaking, and rewarding couple of weeks. If that sounds good, it's because it has been. I'll let the pictures speak for today as I actually have a bit of work to do, and although my intense ADD is trying to sway me towards writing some profound account of how amazing the last couple of weeks have been, I must hyper-focus on my work today.

Spent every possible moment on the bow during the sail.

Arrival in Togo

Welcomed by not just one, but two bands. In typical fashion they hadn't collaborated on what they would be playing, so we had two wonderful (albeit loud) receptions. It was perfect.

Day 2 in Togo- Time to pick up the Rovers that a church graciously stored for us while we sailed.

They really had to beg me to help pick them up.

One of 3 small screening last week

I swear they were excited about the bubbles, although this picture isn't helping my case.

At it again in a new country!

2010 Africa Mercy Nurses

Ward Nurses

My 'Mercy Ships Dad' and I. God used Gary and his wife in 2008 as the foundation for the idea of long term missions. He is the first person in Africa I ever met from Mercy Ships, and seeing him here was a pretty big deal to me. This is the third country in two years where our paths have crossed.

First good storm of the year here. Fun for us, and the 4 car loads of new arrivals racing through the puddles (well, definitely for us at least. I'll ask the arrivals once they've dried off).

Hospital open house. Go ahead and hope you don't require stitches with me as your only go-to. You'll live, but it won't be pretty.

New friends and old.

Best Sunday afternoon ever.

Luke 12:32-34
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It calls you back

In less than two hours I will again fix my eyes on Africa. I can feel the engines running below where I sit, we are getting closer. This morning I woke up to the sun rising for the 8th morning in a row. I knew when I felt the sun, already burning warm at 6am, that today was the day.
Before I closed my eyes to pray last night I realized that we were only hours away from seeing the very first glimpses of God's plan for us in Togo. He knows every single person we are going to see and touch. He knows who He will call home while we struggle again with letting go. He knows who will go home victorious, carrying His name on their lips. He loves every baby that this society has cast away, He knows their name, He knows the number of hairs on their heads. They are so precious in His sight.

That familiar excitement, unlike any other, is back. My eyes are wide, my heart is ready.
In one and a half months I have been on three continents, sailed for a total of 22 days, and now I have returned. I can't believe my story was written like this, I am so honored to have this life.
I opened my email this morning to read this;

"Measure thy life by loss and not by gain,
not by the wine drunk but by the wine poured forth.
For loves strength standeth in loves sacrifice
and he that suffereth most hath most to give."
-Ugo Bassi, priest in Italy in 1848

There is word going around that there are some cleft lip babies and their mamas waiting on the docks for us already. They were in tough enough shape that the advance team has arranged in advance for the nurses in our infant feeding program to have formula ready to hand out right when we get there.
And there are those familiar tears threatening to fall.

'They' say; "Africa calls you back".
That makes me smile. It stirs something deep inside of me. Since the day I left, it has been calling me back.
And now, I'm here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

For those who have been given much

Last year I walked into the office of the hospital Manager. I held in my hands a proposal for a Burkitt's Lymphoma program, to start in Togo 2010. I had just made the decision to stay based on prayer during a 1 week period when I had met 4 children with Burkitt's on the ward.
God used soft kisses on my cheek from Luc to make my heart soar. He used the glares from stubborn Maddie as I hooked up her IV, or anything else for that matter, to make me smile and laugh about how much I love every child I have ever seen. He showed me through tears from eyes filled with gratitude from sweet Rachelle, that holding a hand, and having a gentle touch, all in the name of Jesus, is worth more than any medicine.
He used yovo-phobic Aime to challenge me, and again, make me appreciate kids all the more.
He started a story about this pediatric nurse, bent on never doing oncology, working with his little ones in Africa (where Burkitt's is primarily found in the world).

I passed in a proposal last year that in no way was written by words of my own. I had no idea what I was doing, I was completely naive about how to go about doing it, but God had my heart in His hands, He knew what to say, and as always, I just wrote as it came to me.
Last year the little proposal-that-could was passed.
My next job- to write the policies, procedures, and basically everything else to do with the program.
Did I mention I had no idea what I was doing? Cause that's a kind of important part to this story. I know how to love kids, I even know a thing or two about being their nurse. Pediatric oncology? Nope. Policy writing? Nope. How to start a program from scratch? Nada.

I told you about emailing my boss to at least talk with someone who knew a thing or two. One small entire course date change for the whole hospital to suite my small window of time at home later...I was certified to administer chemotherapy to kids.
Back to the ship and time to write some stuff. By stuff, I mean everything to do with anything related to Burkitt's. (Still with no clue as to what I am doing at this point)
My ADD kicked into overdrive. My mind raced as I went through (several) notebooks of everything I have ever learned on the subject, plus last years experience in working with these kids. I started with a presentation, a platform to spill out everything I know and mop it back up into something another human being might understand.

God, show me what to do. I know this is your will. Help me though, because I don't know what to do.

First the pharmacist approached me. The same one who sat with me for hours last year at the ministry of health in Benin, waiting to buy the same medication we were desperate to get this year. We had no donations, no order was placed, we've never officially done chemo on the ship, we have limited supplies, how do we dispose of the cytotoxic drug (the one we don't have anyways) can we get it here on time...You catching where this is going?
I was overwhelmed by the end of the day. I spent hours going through pages and pages of notes.
I prayed that night and the following morning.
I know this is your will, show us what to do.
In my inbox that morning I read the following;
"Some exciting things happen today. Last September we asked {not sure if I am supposed to say their name} in the UK for a donation of cyclophosphamide. Today, they chose to inform us that we were going to get that donation...The funny thing is that they called us before we called them. And, on Monday Steve had actually given up on the donation and filed his paperwork from the September request away for a later time!!! That has to be more than just a chance coincidence!"

Why yes, yes, I agree.

And now Que some medical hurdles, questions that were far above my nursing knowledge, especially because I have been officially licensed to fill this roll for all of about 2 minutes. I emailed a surgeon I met last year, one whose wife worked in palliative care, (who just happened back then to work with Burkitt's kids too. Don't get me started on coincidences associated with this story).
He replied he wasn't the right person to ask, but to email another doctor. He hadn't talked to him in years, wasn't sure the email address would even work, but, just in case, he gave it to me.
Within an hour I had a response. Who was this doctor? The one who wrote the original medical protocols for the Burkitt's kids back in 2005. I had stared at his name all last year when I referred back to what to do with each kid.
"I would like to revise this protocol, I will get back to you in a couple of days"
"Of course you would", I thought.
I got the revised protocol, in its entirety, 2 days later.

Back to a new conversation with the pharmacist...
"We have to figure out if we can burn the left-over drugs in our incinerator, is there risk for exposure to the engineers dumping it? How exactly does it work? Right, because i have so much experience in engineering and burning toxic waste.
In walks Ali's husband to have his haircut next to where I was sitting, right after talking about this little (read:huge) detail.
Phil=engineer=someone who may know what the heck I am trying to figure out.
minutes later...
"I asked the chief engineer about it, he will get back to you and we'll figure out a system for it. Sound good?"
uh, Yup.
So yes, I haven't even made it back to Africa and I have already cried over where this year is going. Despite my absolute cluelessness about the majority of what I am actually responsible for, God is laying his perfect path right in front of me. He is making it clear and obvious, I feel so loved. Undeniable, my God is.

Oh yea, my partner in all of this is a girl I met a year ago. We both come from Boston, we worked as pediatric nurses, we both attended the same concert nearly a year and a half ago where God started telling us to go to some big floating hospital somewhere in Africa, and we are both now here for the long haul. Becca is one of my favorite people on the ship, and she is just as crazy as I am with this program. She is bringing experience, zest for life and God, and overall beautiful, precious excitement for this little project.
Neither of us know what exactly we are doing, yet things keep falling into place. We prayed today, asking God to guide us, not let us get ahead of ourselves, and more than anything...Thanks.
Because we are in awe that this is even close to working.
We are excited to see the first Burkitt's kid walk up the gangway.
I can hardly wait to lay kisses straight from Jesus on the scrunched up brows of each beautiful child He places in our path.
There is still so much work to do, still many hurdles to overcome. We need a physician to oversee these kids during their care on the ship, we have so many questions, probably more than we even are aware of. The list goes on. And on.
So yes, you can pray for us. Please do.
Last week when I was making those slides of everything Burkitt's, I included slides of Luc, Maddie, Rachelle, Aime for the purpose of showing some case studies. As I looked at their smiles staring back at me I let myself soak in God's goodness.
I love you, Suzanne, those trial of last year will not be in vain. Be excited, because I am. I will show you exactly what to do. Remember, if you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit.
Last year when I held the original proposal in my hands for this program, waiting to hand it to my boss, my eyes fell on a scripture verse up on the wall in the admin office. I knew, back then, that I was not doing any of this on my own strength. I also knew I would do anything God asked of me, and I couldn't wait.

Luke 12:48
"When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required."

Monday, February 1, 2010

We'll ride

As I type I again find myself somewhere in the Atlantic, sailing towards a new destination. When I first joined Mercy Ships I struggled so much with change. As I stood on the top deck of the ship, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it came to me. As I sleepily gazed out onto the port in Tenerife, I realized I couldn't wait to sail, to make my way back to Africa, to embrace another change.
When I returned to the ship from my time at home I found myself amongst so many new people. Many had settled in and at first it was difficult not to wish things would just go back to being the same as last year. I wanted the familiar faces, I wanted conversation that picked up where it last left off.
As the past week went on I found myself forming new friendships, watching the change in people change my outlook on life. A process that is ongoing through our lives, as long as we let it be.
Now all of those new people and myself are traveling towards our next mission on a 500 foot steel ship.

The thought that the next ground I will set foot on will be African soil is difficult for me to grasp. Togo will bring new challenges, new heartbreaking stories, and new instances of pure joy. I am full of expectation, I am excited, I am ready.

All of this change feels so natural now. The best things in my life have come as a result of change, how could I deny its power?

"I’ve been wooed and romanced by your splendor
Enraptured I’m weak with your wonder
Be me life be my love be my shelter
Cover me cover me

I will always love you
I’ll never leave your side
I will always love you
As one this life, we’ll ride, we'll ride"
Sweet Abandon-Maeve