Healing hands

‘It has hands down been the best thing I have ever done,’ Lauren concludes as she reflects on her three months onboard the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, currently docked in Senegal, West Africa. The Morrinsville the occupational therapist’s professional skills were stretched to the limit as she worked in the Mercy Ships rehabilitation team.

Fellow Kiwi nurse Bec with Mohammed and Lauren

Published by OT Insight magazine, April 2020

‘I went to the Mercy Ship to assist with hand therapy, but I have left with so much more than I could ever imagine,’ Lauren enthusiastically explains. ‘I was challenged professionally with conditions I had never seen. My entire caseload consisted of children, which was incredible, but also extremely difficult as I don’t generally work with children at home.’

Lauren’s years of work at Thames and Waikato hospitals in the hand therapy, and burns and scar management department prepared her for the extreme cases she would encounter in West Africa. Her skill set is vital to the successful outcome for the hospital ship’s patients who undergo operations onboard after their third-degree burns were untreated. In the developing nations Mercy Ships serves, there is little access to medical services; when accidents happen people often suffer life-long consequences. If a severe burn heals without medical care, scar tissue will form and immobilise the joint, permanently disabling the sufferer.

Free surgery to release the scars provides half the answer. Lauren and the rehabilitation team then work with the patients post-surgery to help them regain basic function; to walk normally, to hold a spoon, and even lift their arms above their heads – often for the first time in many years. Only then is complete healing within reach.

Lauren explains the life-long impact of the injuries and scaring for her plastic surgery patients. ‘Most of our patients had burn contractures to their hands, elbows or arm pits from a very young age, as young as two days old. They have had contracting scars for 3-20 years and had adapted to this way of life. They altered their motor patterns so they could function in everyday life.’

Lauren made enduring friendships during her volunteer service on the hospital ship

The 24-year-old was so impacted by her tour-of-duty that she has signed up to return in February for another four-month volunteer service. Lauren feels she grew personally as well as professionally as part of the international crew, ‘I was able to build relationships with patients, crew members and day crew that are so rich. I made new friends, was immersed in African culture, and learned a new language (very little, but enough to get by and have my patients excited that I would try). I was challenged spiritually in my beliefs, my reason. I was shown that love and people are more important than anything else. I went to Senegal for work, but I left with a richness to life that I will cherish forever.’

Mercy Ships spends 10 months each year in a West African nation providing free essential surgery for people living in in extreme hardship, and is crewed by medical, maritime and general volunteers from around the world.

‘Mohammed loves a hand hold and his favourite English word is Loz. He hates smiling at the camera. He loves his exercises the most of all of my patients, and will me and join everyone else’s treatment sessions as well as his own. He reminds his mum when it’s exercise time.

Video: Watch Gamai’s story