Whether a seasoned professional or someone just entering their field, the idea of uprooting your entire life for a job can be a terrifying prospect. However, for 28-year-old Kat Sotolongo, it was a calling that changed her life.
“I think what called me to Mercy Ships is the fact that I’m using my creative skills to enhance this organization and to help facilitate the messaging of all the good that we’re doing in the countries that we serve,” Kat said.
Kat began her journey with Mercy Ships when she joined the Africa Mercy crew during the Benin field service three years ago. A Miami, FL native, Kat began her career in video production working as a freelancer before she learned about a unique organization — one that used a hospital ship, full of volunteer medical professionals to provide free surgeries to those in need in sub-Saharan Africa.
Not long after she completed her application, Kat was ready to set sail, declining her recently earned promotion and saying goodbye to her family and friends.
“I loved my coworkers and my boss, but I just felt like it was right,” Kat said. “I told my mom, ‘I’m going to go and work in West Africa. I’m not getting paid, and it gets better, I have to pay to work. And she was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Once onboard the ship, Kat says it didn’t take long to see why she felt lead to volunteer. During her ten-month tenure as the ship videographer, she was able to see first-hand the impact that safe and timely surgical care had on the patients she met.
“I’d have to argue that my position is probably the best one on the ship because we’re one of the few departments that get to walk alongside the patient from start to finish,” Kat shared. “You get to build these relationships with them. You get to see their highs and their lows and walk with them in that.”
Kat had the opportunity to meet and connect with many patients who were suffering from seemingly preventable conditions — such as seven-year-old Maurinho, who would not allow his bowed legs to shape his future.
”He was just a fighter! He was so timid and shy at first, but as we got to develop a relationship with him, his true personality shown and he was just so full of life,” she said. “He was one of these patients that never cried and was someone that the other patients looked up to.”
Despite his condition, Maurinho dreamed of becoming a soccer player, and after he was discharged, his dream came one step closer.
“We got him a soccer ball, and he was running and excited — it was like his life was back to normal, and we got to see that transformation,” Kat said. “There’s that cheesy saying that, ‘We can’t change the world, but we can change the world for one person,’ and that was quite literally what happened. There was a change in the trajectory of his life, just by providing safe surgical care! And that’s why I do it. That’s why I’m here.”
During her time onboard the Africa Mercy, an opportunity presented itself to continue working with Mercy Ships, this time from the Operational Headquarters located in Texas. Now, her job is to take the incredible stories of healing and share them with the world through the videos she and her team create. While she is no longer onboard the hospital ship, Kat is still able to see the impact safe surgical care has on so many people — people like Edith and her mother Valerie.
“I remember when I was editing that patient story, and I was crying the whole time,” she said. “I don’t even know these people, but just to see all the footage of her with her tumor and later her just celebrating her life, it was just pretty incredible.”
Kat is approaching her four year anniversary with Mercy Ships, and while she isn’t sure where her career might take her in the future, she knows that her life wouldn’t be the same, saying that she feels she has been “wrecked for the ordinary.”
“I thought it was only going to be a ten-month commitment, and here we are,” she said. “All of my efforts are just a tiny piece of this big puzzle. I think that we’re so powerful as humans, but we often think, ‘Oh, I’m just one person, or I’m playing a small role,’ but collectively, that is making a huge impact! And so I’ve kind of made that my mantra. I’m just one person, but I hope that what I bring to the table is making a big change in someone’s life.”