Volunteer Nurses Bring Hope and Healing to Those in Need
Imagine, for a moment, the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Phoenix disappearing. Despite the size of those cities, their populations combined are still fewer than how many people die every year from a lack of surgical intervention in developing nations.
And while 17 million people dying due to preventable conditions is a shocking reality, it has been reported that 5 billion people (nearly 300 times more than all those cities combined) lack access to safe medical and surgical care.
That unmet need motivated Katie Henderson, a 25-year-old pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) nurse, to set sail with Mercy Ships.
“I think it shouldn’t matter where you come from, where you live, or how much money you have,” she said. “If there’s a treatment, you should be able to get it.”
Katie always knew she wanted to work with children.
“I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but then I became interested in medicine,” she shared. “When I discovered I could be a children’s nurse, that’s what sold it to me.”
Katie completed a nursing degree and went to work as an intensive care nurse at the world-renowned children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.
After three years, in 2020, she decided to take a gap year to travel. Then, the pandemic struck.
With all her travel plans in tatters, she remembered a friend who had talked about Mercy Ships. She decided to apply, but there was work to be done while she waited.
Throughout the pandemic, Katie worked in COVID-19 intensive care units in London. During that time, she felt more aware than ever that she was part of a bigger picture.
“The whole world was battling the same thing, and we were all struggling,” she said. “It was probably the first time that all nurses internationally combined to tackle one thing on such a scale.”
Eventually, her mission shifted again. She learned she’d been accepted to join Mercy Ships, and it was time to go.
An International Experience
When Katie arrived in Senegal in February, she found herself surrounded by others from around the world, all with the same vision.
“There’s American nurses, Colombian nurses, nurses from Germany, Sweden, France,” she said. “There’s day crew who are local to Senegal and other African crew from Ghana, Sierra Leone, among others.”
The Africa Mercy® had just returned to Dakar, and Katie was busy preparing for the first patient. As she waited to meet Sokhna, a young woman in her 20s, Katie was nervous. Working with adults, with the added challenge of a language barrier, was outside her comfort zone.
“With children, you can play with toys, which puts them at ease,” she said. “But I was worried about forming a bond with adults.”
But Katie connected quickly with Sokhna, who had spent her life living with a cleft palate.
“She was special for so many reasons,” Katie said. “She had traveled 14 hours for surgery, and she had never been out of her hometown. It was her first time seeing the sea, being on a ship.”
Katie did everything she could to make Sokhna feel at home as she went through surgery and recovery. “She was in post-op for the next two to three days, and I kept seeing her smiling and seeing her happy,” Katie said. “She kept holding the mirror to her face and seeing what her face looked like now.”
‘No Bigger Joy’
Katie felt uplifted as she sent Sokhna home to her one-year-old child. But she was excited to work with children on board as well.
“We’ve had lots of children who had cleft palate operations — they are quite a big operation, so you look after them for five to seven days,” she said. “So, you see them when they’re quite sick and recovering, and you witness their transformation. They start playing and smiling and becoming confident. It’s magical.”
As she’s served on the Africa Mercy, Katie has been struck by the hope and gratitude she’s witnessed.
“It’s not that people at home are not grateful,” she said. “But here, it is so overwhelming because if we were not here — this would not happen.”
The joy Katie found on board prompted her to extend her service from three months — to six.
“Pretty much from the moment I got here, I was sad about leaving,” she said. “There’s no experience that compares to this — and no bigger joy!”
Learn more about our many volunteers who serve on board our hospital ships.