A Physio’s Mercy Ships Adventure

Alli Miller had been a physical therapist for seven years when she felt like it was time to take a break. Alli had long heard about Mercy Ships from her mom and decided now was the time to apply as a volunteer. Shortly after, Alli took off for Cameroon on her first field service. Her love for the children she cared for and the phenomenal crew that she worked with on board inspired Alli to volunteer for two more field services.

In this episode, Alli explains why physical therapists are an important part of the patients’ complete transformation. She also shares how much she loved being creative with her therapy practice, using new techniques and using everyday materials she found on the docks to strengthen her patients. Alli’s passion for learning and joy in helping her patients recover will brighten your day.

Mercy Ships has brought hope and healing to those who need it most for over 40 years. Using hospital ships, we are able to provide safe, free surgical care to those in need and bring medical training to healthcare workers living in the countries we serve.

Looking for a way to join our mission of bringing hope and healing? Partner with us through a gift, volunteering with us, or by joining us in prayer.

 

                       

New Mercies Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.

Today, we get to hear from a physical therapist who served in Cameroon, Guinea, and Senegal. After practicing in the U.S. for seven years, Alli needed to experience something different and regain her passion for medicine. That’s when she decided to go volunteer with Mercy Ships. You’re gonna smile through this interview because the joy in Alli’s voice is infectious. Here’s my interview with Alli Miller.

Raeanne Newquist:

Alli, I am so excited to have you on the podcast today because we have not had a physical therapist on the podcast yet and I’m really excited to get your perspective and hear your Mercy Ships journey. So Alli, welcome to the podcast.

Alli Miller:

Thank you so much for having me.

Raeanne:

It is so interesting because there are all these different roles that people play on board. And oftentimes when people think of Mercy Ships, they immediately just think of the hospital — they think of nurses and doctors. But we’ve had housekeepers on the podcast, we’ve had teachers, and there’s just such a wide variety of people and wide variety of roles. And being a physical therapist is one of those. So why don’t you tell us first of all, why there is a need for physical therapists on board our ships.

Alli:

If you think of your doctors and your nurses, they’re absolutely of the utmost importance. And they’re kind of at the crux of the surgery. And as physical therapists, our role encompasses all the recovery, the recovery, and getting them set up and polished off to return home as mobile as possible. So our role is really in the mobility and in the healing. And now we’re there through the healing process, the strengthening, stability, and healing, so they are able to walk home.

Raeanne:

It is very important because a lot of the patients that come on board are receiving orthopedic surgery. They’re having their legs straightened, kind of restructured, or even hands and arms. And so if they don’t have that rehabilitation that comes and the physical therapists that stretch them out, that strengthen them, that get them moving again, then the surgeries would almost be for nothing.

Alli:

With orthopedics, we do a lot of cast changes, and we teach them how to walk with crutches and then strengthen up so they don’t need the crutches later. The patients with burns are the plastic patients. For those folks it’s a lot of splinting and stretching. We help them use their arm that’s been detangled from their scars, and just getting them to use it again because they haven’t used it for years, possibly in the correct manner.

Raeanne:

Alli, how did you hear about Mercy Ships in the first place? And why did you decide to go volunteer?

Alli:

My mom is a nurse. And she always had a huge heart for missions. One of her nursing school classmates worked with the Caribbean Mercy. And actually, I think she worked at in Texas for a while with administrative details with Mercy Ships. So I always grew up hearing about this ship that goes around the world and provides health care. So it literally, as long as I can remember, it’s been on my radar. And then I got to 2017, and I had been a therapist for seven years. So I’d been a therapist for as long as I’d studied to be a therapist and possibly I had a little crisis of self. And I was struggling, like what am I doing? Why am I doing this job? I don’t know if I still like it. Maybe I’ll go back to school for art. And my mother is very wise, and she’s like, huh, I don’t think that’s a good idea. And she said, why don’t you take a year and explore some options, do something that’s not for a paycheck. So I think it was April of 17, I applied for a post-grad in Australia a pediatric hospital physician, and Alaska and Mercy Ships in Africa. I said, “Dear Lord, wherever you want me, have them contact me first.” And within 10 days Mercy Ships got back to me, and they had a position. I think some people wait years to get a position and I was there in two and a half months. God spoke to me through my mother’s wisdom, and really was a beautiful experience.

Raeanne:

Wow. And your first field service was in Cameroon — what was that experience like for you?

Alli:

Rainy! Very rainy! It rained a lot in Cameroon.

It was amazing. It was humbling. Because I had been a therapist for seven years, I thought I knew what I was doing. And coming to the ship, there were cases that I didn’t study in school, there were procedures we were doing that I had never done before, or else you’d heard of, but I’d never actually done it. There was a language barrier, I hadn’t really worked in a situation where I had such a profound language barrier, like really working through a translator 100%. And it was so humbling because it kind of took me back to being a student. And you had to have the humility of asking — how do you get somebody with two full leg casts out of a bed. It just like, hey, this is something I’ve not done before when I can’t speak their language. It was a beautifully humbling experience. And it was incredible because everyone was so helpful. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a medical team that was so unified and so much a team. Back home, if you really needed help, sometimes you can find somebody that can help you. But it was very rushed, or you’re kind of pulling them away from their duties. The nursing staff would stop what they’re doing and would help you or another therapists would say, Oh, I know how to do that, let me show you. Or you could stop a doctor in the hall and ask him a question, and he would stop and explain something to you. And that was humbling to be in that learning experience again, but then have such a support team on all sides to just lift you up into the position where you were competent.

Raeanne:

Yeah, that’s so amazing. I think that, at least in America, sometimes we’re accustomed in the workplace to have a sense of competition, or you know what, I’m here to do my job, if you don’t know how to do your job, then perhaps you’re in the wrong position. You know, I mean, unfortunately, there is a real individualistic mindset. And there’s a little bit of competition, but it’s so refreshing, but also just fulfilling to be working on the ship with a team where everybody is there to work together. And like you said, they’re unified, everyone’s willing to help everyone, there’s no hierarchy or competition, and it’s such a beautiful thing.

Alli:

I would attribute so much of it to the focus being seeing our Lord in the patients, seeing Christ in your patients, and just being able to serve that patient. Your day isn’t about you getting through your day, or you getting your productivity numbers in, or you’re taking off everything on your caseload list. It’s about that patient in front of you, and whoever needs to be involved in the care of that one patient in front of you is the focus. And I that was mind-blowing for me. I just loved it.

Raeanne:

Wow, that’s really cool. What was that like for you then having experienced a work environment like that? What was that like for you when you returned back to your practice in Ohio? I mean, were you able to incorporate some of that attitude and that mindset in your workplace or what was that transition like?

Alli:

I feel like every time I’ve come back home to my Ohio workplace, I’ve done it better. Like I’ve been able to integrate it in a more complete way. I’m a clinical director, I am a supervisor of the clinic that I am currently working in, so I have the responsibility of setting the tone. I’ve really tried to bring that patient-focused care and teamwork home to my clinic. I know the first time I came home there was almost like a sense of loss like Oh, I’ve come back to this. It’s so empty. When I’m working on the ship, when I’m working with those with the girls on the wards, the guys on the wards, it’s so easy to keep positive. Then you come home, and it’s like, oh, no, sorry, you’re doing this by yourself here. But it is doable, you just have to figure out, I’ve just had to figure out the manner in which to reintegrate it. You do have to find places to keep your energy up, because sometimes it doesn’t come from work.

Raeanne:

And how wonderful for the people that you work with now in your clinic, that they get to learn from you, that they get to have a supervisor and a boss, who is really teaching them a whole different mindset and a whole different way of working unified as a team. It benefits everybody. So you go to Mercy Ships to serve, but you’ll learn so much that you can take with you to incorporate, which is so great. Well, in that first field service in Cameroon, in addition to the incredible work environment, what was it that compelled you to return because Cameroon was not the only field service that you served in?

Alli:

I think I knew about two weeks in. So when I took the position in Cameroon, another therapist had those months booked. And for some reasons they had to turn the position back in. So I was kind of like, a little insert there. And I didn’t feel like I was there long enough. And I knew maybe two weeks in of my first field services, like Oh, this isn’t going to be long enough. I’ve got to come back. And so I definitely knew right away I needed to come back. What probably compelled me was I love to learn. I could be one of those people that just goes to college forever and ever and ever. I love to learn. And it was such an incredible opportunity to learn about people, to learn about myself, to learn about medical things, and be creative.

There’s a creativity, you are permitted there medially that you are not permitted back home. On the ship you could create things, you could take medicine to a different level and I loved it. That’s why I did seven years of studying to be in medicine because I love that. It was like, Oh, I actually get to do it. So definitely, just Cameroon was not enough. And actually, I convinced one of my younger sisters to come back with me to Guinea on the second field service. She was kind of teetering between going into nursing or not. So she took a gap year at 19 and so her and I both came back for Guinea.

Raeanne:

Well, you know, when you’re working in an international environment, where there are people from all over the world working together, I’m sure that everyone is coming with different experience, different instruction, different education, they probably do things a little bit different in Australia or in France than they do in America. As you mentioned, I know in Australia they are called physios, not physical therapists, or sometimes we say pts. So you’re able to learn different ways of doing things like you said, and to be creative. Probably part of that creativity was inspired by the international community around you.

Alli:

Oh, that is so true. And the diversity of practice backgrounds that the other therapists had, all their ideas, they would come up with things that just blew my mind, like I would never consider to do that. But actually, some of those ideas I’ve incorporated back home, and they’re just part of my practice now. It was fantastic!

Raeanne:

That is so neat. Well, I know, having been into some of the physical therapy tents down on the dock in Senegal, some of the things that you use for therapy, you find on the dock. So can you tell us a little bit about some of the maybe non-conventional things that you get to do being on a ship and working on a dock?

Alli:

A really, really wise physical therapist once told me — to be a good PT, all you need is your hands. Anything else you need for practice is around. You don’t need equipment, you don’t need this, you don’t need that. And it is so exemplified with work on the ship because we have a tent, but there’s really not much in the tent. It just kind of protected you from the rain if it was raining. In Senegal, I was there for orthopedics and all the orthopedic patients were children between the ages of 3, 4, and 15. So they love to play, and they’re kids that are used to playing outside and climbing over things and jumping over things and running. The dock gave us the phenomenal ability to walk on tires, climb ropes, climb stairs, we did lots of like stepovers and bouncing on pieces of curb or broken cement. We carried pieces of broken cement and rice bags. One little boy’s dad had a rice farm, and his job was to help his dad carry the rice and it always hurt his legs when he’d carry the bags. So we found a bag of rice, and he chucked that bag of rice all over the place so that when he went home, he could help his dad.

Back here at home, it’s so easy to get into a rut of machines and weights and dumbbells. Sometimes it’s applicable functionally to that person’s work or life or mowing the grass, but sometimes it’s not. And so there’s a huge push to always get creative and get functional. And I feel it just came naturally there. So there wasn’t that struggle of oh, is this dumbbell exercise actually translating to something in real life? On the ship, it was just like what they do in real life and we tried to make it a game. And how do we use the right muscles as we’re doing it?

Raeanne:

Like you said, it was a lot of that creativity that really inspired you and compelled you to continue to go serve, which is very cool. Well, tell us a little bit about your patients. You mentioned some of them were children, but tell us a little bit about the children that you worked with, the patients you worked with, their conditions, and how maybe they had an impact in your life.

Alli:

In most of the field services I served, I almost exclusively took care of children, all the orthopedic patients were all littles. And then in Guinea, I was there for quite a bit of plastics. But for some reason the section of plastics I was in, there was a plethora of 2, 3, and 4-year-olds. So we just had all sorts of littles. They were precious, absolutely precious. And they were so motivated to move — it was harder to get them to sit still and heal than it was to get them moving, which is an incredibly great problem to have. In Guinea, there were five, 3-year-olds at the same time and they all had burns. A lot of the cooking is still done over maybe a charcoal burner or open fires. Kids move, and kids crawl into fires, or they reach up on countertops and pull hot soup down over themselves. It happens here as well, but here you get very rapid burn care, you get to ICU, you get skin care right away. It’s not as accessible in Sub-Saharan Africa and multiple places in the world. So your body heals and scars in a way that sticks a little arm to your ribcage. It sticks your fingers together into a little clump. So you heal, but you no longer have a functional extremity. So a lot of the plastic surgeries are to open up those scarred extremities, release the fingers, release the arm, released the elbow. We then make them splints so as they heal, the skin is held in that open stretch position, not a tight position.

The kids were so cute, and they all had the little airplane splints, they’d hold their arms out so they were all running around and they would escape their parents, and you would hear giggling coming from the X-ray room. You’d be like, oh, where’s my patient? And all five of them were hiding around the corner by X-ray with little splints on — they were so cute.

The walls of the ship are metal, and someone had donated a whole set of really pretty magnets. To get them to do reaching exercises we would put magnets up high where they could almost not reach, and they could only use their surgery arm to reach the magnets, and so they would go around the ship, and it was like a little game of who would gather the most magnets!

With the orthopedic patients, maybe nutritional issues or rickets caused the deformity with malformed legs. And usually, they were born nice and straight, but as the child started to get a little heavier and a little bigger, the bones would bow. And as they would get bigger and hit puberty and adulthood, it would be very painful and become nonambulatory. So we gave lots of nutritional education and would fix the bones to align them so as they grew, their bones would be straight. And those boys just wanted to play soccer, and that was their goal.

I’m sure everybody thinks they have the best job on ship, but we were the first people that got to see them. We got to take all those little measures before surgery, and then we got to see them right after surgery. And we were the ones that discharged them home. So we got to see them from the very beginning to the very end. We’d ask all those boys — What do you want to do with straight legs? and all the boys would say they want to play football. And I loved their goals. The girls whose goals were always — I want to walk to school, I want to be able to sew. So we had a sewing machine, and we’d tell them to make me some lines on the fabric and practice a little sewing.

Raeanne:

Now was there a patient, in particular, that kind of captured your heart?

Alli:

All of them!

There were four little boys in Guinea, and they were all from different areas from the country. When they first came to the ship, they were all very scared, they hadn’t seen the ocean before, and no one had seen a ship. It was fun to watch them go from being afraid to get close to the water, to throwing sticks in the water and perhaps getting too close! Now they love the water. Their little legs were so straight. They encouraged each other and became like a little team. When one got their cast off, they’d come back and say – hey, it wasn’t that bad, it was good, you can do it! So encouraging to each other. And then they all just did exemplary once the cast came off, and they were kind of in the last phase of just strengthening, they were so strong. So we would give them challenges like who can plank longer. They were they were just phenomenal. And then it got to the point where they started going home. I remember visiting the Hope Center and one of the boys had just gone home the day before, and the other three were sitting at the front of the Hope Center crying. I asked what’s wrong? They said our friend has left us. The camaraderie they had was beautiful. They were just amazing and so supportive of each other.

Raeanne:

I’m sure that completely aids in their healing.

Allie:

Yes, they’re working together, inspiring and encouraging one another, and supporting each other that just has to accelerate their healing.

I can only imagine from their perspective — maybe they’re the only kid in their village that had legs that looked like that. They’d never seen anybody else’s legs look like that. Then you come to this place and there are kids all around you that legs look like that. And then you’re all in casts together, and then you’re all strengthening together as you’re straight together. Yeah. And I think it’s really good just for the psychological aspect of healing.

Raeanne:

Well, especially in your position you got to see lives being changed all the time. Because as you mentioned, you saw these patients before surgery from the beginning. You saw their legs and their arms and hands and fingers all misshapen and deformed. But then you walk them through the journey. You got to see the change after surgery and then rehab and then sending them home. So tell us a little bit about how being so involved in someone’s life transformation transformed your life.

Alli:

It almost impacts every aspect of your life. I feel like when you invest in a personal like that, on a personal level, it makes you value your ability to go and be part of that. I was so grateful for the opportunity that I had to have the knowledge to be able to assist in that. Yeah, just so so grateful for my education, so grateful for where God has taken my life. I’m a little nerdy, I love biology and the way the body works and just watching the kids, you watch the surgery, you’ve looked at where those bones are, and you’re like, that’s never gonna heal. And then it does! and then they’re running on it, and then they’re beating you and foot races on that leg. You look at that first X ray and think no, that’s not gonna heal, and it does. So it just increases my wonder in the human body. Even now I look at somebody with a cold and think, their body can kick that, like it can heal, just the wonder of the human body and its capacity for healing. And then emotionally, so many of those patients have had some emotional trauma in their past and being rejected, or not able to do the things like walking to school, and they’re ridiculed. But they receive emotional healing. The capacity for the human body to heal is probably one of the huge things in my mind that has been transformed.

Raeanne:

Getting to practice on a ship is very unique and getting to live on a ship is also very unique. And you learn a lot of different things. So why don’t you tell us something that you learned just from living in the unique environment of a ship.

Alli:

You really have to have good knees! You have to go upstairs and downstairs all day, and the floor is not squishy, soft grass, it’s hard. It’s metal. So you really have to have great knees. The other thing is if you have a big bubble space, like a personal bubble space, which I tend to have, you have to gracefully shrink it. There’s not a lot of space.

Raeanne:

Very true. You have to pop that bubble.

Alli:

Bubble has to go yes, yes.

Raeanne:

I know that you are a woman of many talents. I know that you are an artist and a musician. In addition to the work that you do, you have a lot of creativity within you. How were you able to use that onboard the ship? How were you able to express yourself outside of the physical therapy tent?

Alli:

I did do some sewing. So there’s amazing textiles and fabric and fabulous things in Africa, so I did some poor sewing myself, but I also designed a dress with a tailor, and it was a blast. I also play the harp. So I have a small therapy harp that I would take like a tip to the hospital. So I found little corners to play music. I play music for patients and at the Christmas party on the ship. Oh, I did harp caroling one Christmas on this ship that was fun. There’s always an opportunity to play with somebody or listen to somebody or sing with somebody.

Raeanne:

You know, a lot of times we focus on the job that people go to do on board. You know you’re a physio, you’re a doctor, you’re a housekeeper, you’re a teacher, but you’re also a real person who has passions and interests and hobbies. And I love that on board, all the crew have opportunity to live into their passions and their hobbies that can be completely separate from the job that they have on board. And I love that a physical therapist is also a phenomenal harpist. In addition to the knowledge and experience you have that you give to the patients you can pursue your passions, it’s so cool that there’s a work environment that allows for both.

Alli:

Yes, it allows you to integrate it. And honestly, on the wards, you really can’t get away from music. Because if somebody has it playing on their phone, the whole ward is singing. It just surrounded you. That’s a full life when you can be singing while you work. That’s living!

Raeanne:

That’s pretty great. Well, Alli, we mentioned that you served first in Cameroon, and then you returned again to go to Guinea. And then you returned for a third time to go to Senegal. Now, whereas all of these countries are in the continent of Africa, they all have their uniquenesses. So can you tell us were you able to see differences amongst the patients in those countries?

Alli:

Yes, you could definitely tell the difference between the countries, not only in cultural ways, but even the dress styles and the dishes. In Cameroon, everything’s lush, and there are lots of vegetables and fruit. And up in Senegal, it’s much more arid with a very different cooking cuisine. Gift giving was different in different countries…

Raeanne:

But did you see similar conditions amongst the patients?

Alli:

Yes, medically similar. Sometimes you see things that are slightly more nutritional related, but very similar cases.

Raeanne:

Yeah, gotcha. Well, it’s so incredible that you are able to take your experience, your education, your knowledge, and go serve people all over the world and make an impact. And I love that as well, the crew that you worked with made an impact on you, but also these precious patients have transformed you in many ways. Ally, what are you looking forward to in the future? Do you hope to go back to serve on the ship again? Are there other opportunities that now your eyes have been open to?

Allli:

I would love to serve again, I’ve been looking into some missions in South America, which would be kind of on my own continent. But my Spanish isn’t phenomenal. Well, I guess neither is my French or my Wolof. So, you know, I guess language is language. I would love to go back. There are five girls in my family and we’re all medical. We’ve always toyed with the idea of doing a mission together. So we would love to do something as a sister group.

Raeanne:

That would be absolutely incredible. I can’t even imagine five sisters on board serving together. That would be extraordinary. Well, Alli, you are such a unique, beautiful woman and I am so grateful that you could be our first physio on the podcast and thank you so much just for sharing with us a little bit about your Mercy Ships journey today.

Alli:

Thank you for the opportunity, and God bless everyone listening.

Raeanne:

Want to know about Mercy Ships? Go to mercyships.org. Next week, Kate Pitchford is sharing with us. Kate has volunteered with Mercy Ships for five years, and she’s kind of a go-to girl on board for answers to just about any questions. Kate is gonna tell us about life on board the Africa Mercy® and the Global Mercy® and how Mercy Ships has impacted her life. Come back next week to hear from Kate.

For more information about Mercy Ships go to mercyships.org and to keep up with the guests on New Mercies, follow us on Instagram at NewMerciesPodcast.