New Mercies: Ellee Rollins
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The Honor of Volunteering as a Nurse

Ellee Rollins is a nurse who was raised overseas with her missionary parents and three siblings. It was part of her upbringing to care for others in need and share the love of Jesus. So, years later, when Ellee heard about Mercy Ships from a co-worker at the hospital, something just felt right about applying to go serve as a nurse on board.

In this episode Ellee offers a glimpse into life in the wards and the special connections she made with her patients. From making friendship bracelets, to throwing birthday parties, Ellee most treasures the bonds she built with patients, translators, and crew. Just about to return to Dakar for her third field service, Ellee is looking forward to returning to some of those incredible relationships and the opportunity to make some new ones!

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

New Mercies  Podcast Transcript

Welcome to 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.

Raeanne Newquist:

Well, Ellee, welcome to New Mercies. And thank you so much for joining me today to kind of share with all of us a little bit about your journey with Mercy Ships. So, thanks for being here.

Ellee Rollins:

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Raeanne:

Ellee, start us off in the beginning — you are a nurse and currently you are practicing in Washington, DC on a travel assignment, which is exciting because you get to move you around different places. How did Mercy Ships enter your nursing journey?

Ellee:

At first, I became a nurse in Virginia and got some experience at the hospital there. And I had a co-worker who one day just started telling stories about this place that he had gone to in Africa, I think he mentioned right away, it was a ship. I wasn’t really tuned in, he was speaking to somebody else. But my ears perked up as he started to tell these stories and kind of little snippets of life in Africa working on a surgery ship and the patients they got to deal with. And I remember kind of stopping him. And I said, “Wait, hold on, this doesn’t sound real. What are you talking about?” And he was more than happy to start sharing stories of his time volunteering on the ship. And I was just so captured by the idea of it. I had never heard of it. I didn’t know it was a possibility to do surgeries on a ship. It was so cool to hear how it was all voluntary with a Christian foundation.

He saw that I was really excited. So, he showed me a video, the 60 Minutes video with Dr. Gary Parker, that was done quite a while ago, maybe around 2012 or something. But he showed me that video and I watched the video immediately. And I’m not much of a crier, but at the end of the video, I had tears in my eyes. I just felt such a specific call from the Lord saying, “This is something that I have in store for you.” I was just so excited; I think I applied pretty soon after that. A few months later, got a got a letter saying I was accepted, and some dates were offered. So, it happened pretty quickly. There’s a lot that led up to that — I grew up as a missionary kid in Eastern Europe, so it is kind of cool how the Lord formulated that upbringing as a missionary kid.

Raeanne:

You mentioned that you grew up as a missionary kid — we just spoke to Caroline Kirchner, who is serving on board the Global Mercy with her adult daughter, Beth, and she had mentioned as a mom, wanting to raise her kids with a missional mindset, taking her family on mission trips several times to show her kids different parts of the world, but also what it means to care for people who are less fortunate than they are. And I’m curious, you have a little bit of that similar thread — tell us a little bit about your growing up. And did you grow up overseas as well with your family?

Ellee:

I did, yes. When I was one, my parents moved me and my siblings over to Eastern Europe to serve for nine years on the mission field. So, a lot of my younger growing up years were there. I’m very thankful for the foundation that my parents provided in demonstrating just incredible faith, stepping out of their comfort zone over to a place they’d never been with four young children. And just really modeling for myself and my siblings a life of leading with extravagant love, putting people first and doing hard things, breaking out of the mold. They just were awesome examples for me and really ingrained in me from a young age, doing those hard things and living with eternity in mind. They taught us to serve people and to reach the unreached and serve and love people well. So, I’m very grateful for that background.

Raeanne:

Wow. Well, tell us about your first field service with Mercy Ships — where did you go and what was your role?

Ellee:

I went in 2018 to Guinea and arrived on the first day of the field service and immediately made a ton of incredible friends and was just so floored by how incredible it was to serve alongside so many amazing people from around the world. I fell in love immediately with organization. I was in Conakry, Guinea, and I was assigned to the general surgery ward, helping patients recover from an assortment of different surgeries.

Raeanne:

Was there anything that struck you about the hospital on board that was really different than the hospitals in America that you had been practicing in?

Ellee:

Yeah, certainly, there’s a lot of things! It kind of felt like you’re going back in time a little bit. You didn’t have the same resources — a lot of great resources, for sure — but everything was a little bit more simplified. But I thought that was great, you kind of learned to be creative. If you didn’t have a certain specific instrument, you got advice from somebody else and used a different kind of instrument that could do the same job. So that was pretty neat. You’re working with a little bit different supplies but can get to the same end result and do an excellent job. Obviously, on a ship, we don’t have everything the same. But it was really cool to learn about how you can do things in a different way.

The ship has a very different setup for the hospital rooms than in the U.S. Oftentimes in the U.S., everybody’s got their own room, ideally. But here, all the patients are in the same room together. So, it’s always a party, everybody’s involved in other people’s care, but it just matches the incredible warmth and community style of West African culture. So, it’s a beautiful part that everybody was in the room together because they’re used to being together in community. They were there for each other. I think a lot of them made friends and stayed friends after they were discharged. So, I’d say some of the differences are the supplies, the community, the style of healthcare there, and a lot of other little things.

Raeanne:

I haven’t heard someone mentioned before, the fact that it’s such a comfort for our patients to all be in the same recovery room together, because they are used to community life, they’re used to living life together. Whereas here in the West, everyone wants their own private room, we’re very individualistic. And I just hadn’t really noticed it before. Because real estate is a hot commodity on a ship, you don’t have a lot of space for everyone to have their own room anyways. But you’re right, it is kind of an added comfort to the patients that they get to be together. And truly you see the patients care for one another. And they build community and relationships in such a beautiful way.

Ellee:

Yeah, definitely. I remember I had a patient in isolation one time, so we had to, unfortunately, take her to a different room so she wasn’t contagious for the other patients. And she was so sad. And it felt like a punishment to her every day, we had to reassure her, this won’t be for very long, you didn’t do anything wrong. You can rejoin everyone soon. That was really impactful for me. They love to be together, which is a beautiful thing. It was really cool to see the community.

Raeanne:

I would think that would aid in their recovery as well, being together to help one another.

Well, tell us a little bit about some things that stood out to you in the patients themselves.

Ellee:

I was really struck by the warmth that I felt and just the generosity that they had on display, despite oftentimes not having much at all to call their own resource-wise or financially. They were so generous and kind. And I remember almost every mealtime that I experienced I would get offered multiple times to join in their meal! It just like blew me away that they have their meal and they’re offering for me to come over and eat with them to make sure I was fed. Just a small act of warmth and generosity and care that they would display with kind of what they had.

And I was given small gifts by them like friendship bracelets that are just so heartwarming, so encouraging, so wonderful and such a testament to not only their warmth, but their true joy despite not having much, which is really impactful. Also, something that you don’t see a lot here in the Western hospitals.

Oftentimes we have a lot more than we need, especially when you go and see some of the countries we serve with Mercy Ships — they don’t have a lot of resources, but they have joy, despite they have each other and they’re able to see what they do have which is really encouraging.

Raeanne:

Wow. Well, when you’re in Guinea, was there a patient that left a little mark on your heart?

Ellee:

I had a few patients that really impacted me. I got floated to work in the outpatient tent and got to help with dressing changes. One day I was helping this one older gentleman who had had surgery to remove a pretty significant facial tumor. He was recovering well, and we just needed to do some maintenance, dressing changes, make sure everything was healing. So, I did a dressing change and just got to chat with him. He was very open about his life before getting the tumor removed and how difficult it was. As the tumor grew his family and his friends just slowly pushed him out, which you hear about in many patients’ stories, but because he had the deformity, people didn’t want associate with Him. They stopped inviting him to family gatherings and functions with friends. And he was eventually just living outside of the village.

He said he would come and sit on the edge of the village and just look and watch from a distance to see what was going on and to make sure that people were okay. But he couldn’t show his face because of the shame of the tumor. He was just so grateful for the chance to have that physical deformity healed, so that he could reenter society. And it reminded me of Dr. Gary’s kind of famous quote, giving people a seat at the table of humanity, restoring their seat at the table of humanity. I was just so excited hearing him talk about how hard it was just excited with thought of him rejoining his community in his village.

Unfortunately, he was ostracized because of physical deformity, but it was a reality for him. He was just incredibly grateful. And he had tears in his eyes and shook my hand and the other nurses’ hands, both of his hands wrapped around our hands. It was so impactful to see the joy and relief in his eyes, and to know that we just had a small part in this. Having that community back, which is so incredibly important for all of us, but especially with African culture. So that was impactful and exciting to witness that small snippet of a story.

Another story was when I was visiting the Hope Center one day for a church service on Sunday. The Hope Center is where patients often go for recovery or preparation for surgery, they live out of town, and we had a time of sharing in the church service. And this one gentleman asked if he could say something. So, he came forward with a patient who had recovered from surgery already, and in front of everybody, he said, I don’t have anything to give back to Mercy Ships and to God for all that I have received. I’m overwhelmed, I don’t have money, I don’t have possessions that I can really give back. But what I do have is a song. So, I’d like to sing for everyone, sing to God about how thankful I am and praise Him for Mercy Ships and how they’ve changed my life and everybody’s life here. So, he started to sing two worship songs in two different languages. And as he’s singing with his eyes closed, and arms up, the whole group started joining in because it was one of the ones that we sang often on the ship.

Just to have the whole room singing with him, celebrating him and his specific story and to see his heart of — I have nothing to give but I’m gonna sing! It just reminded me that none of us really have much to give back to the Lord for all the goodness that He’s given us. But ultimately, he just wants our hearts and what we can offer Him is praise and worship. So, it was so cool to see him surrender what he could and see his thankfulness. I will never forget that.

Raeanne:

What does that feel like for you to know that you have a part in transforming someone’s life? That will never be the same again? What does that feel like?

Ellee:

It’s really hard to describe, I was trying to think of how to put it into words, and it’s not easy. It is such an honor. It’s such an incredible honor. I’ve had friends over the past few years that have said it’s such a sacrifice to go and not get paid. But it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. And it’s not at all putting what I’ve done on display.

It’s just such an honor to be a part of what God’s doing there. And to do it alongside such amazing people, and to rub shoulders with such beautiful patients that we get to serve… It’s all I just considered like a true honor and a joy and something that has forever changed me for sure. And obviously it’s incredible to see the changes that we can see in the patients but for me. To be even a small, small part of the big, big picture and story that Mercy Ships s weaving is amazing. It’s an honor and a gift for me and hard to put into words how much it means to me, but cool that God allows us to have a part in it. He doesn’t need us, but he allows us to join in what he’s doing.

Raeanne:

Well, obviously you have been impacted greatly, because after Guinea, you returned again to serve in the Senegal field service in 2020. When you came back, were you in the same role as you were in Guinea?

Ellee:

When I came back, I was assigned to D Ward, which is more of our maxillofacial surgery ward. So, I got to have some experience helping in those procedures, and then was again floated back to A ward. I got to experience a few of the different wards during the second field service which is really fun to see what’s going on and to see each of those different sections and the different patient populations that are served there.

Raeanne:

I am not a nurse, and I don’t know much about nursing. But in the United States where you primarily practice, are you assigned to a specialty and then you stay in that area? Or do you get exposed to different things kind of like you do on the ship?

Ellee:

It depends. In nursing school, there’s so many different avenues that you can take and different specific patient populations. You can serve a NICU with really specific tiny babies or in geriatric or a lot of different specific units. But I’ve done a lot of work on general surgery wards, or med surg units in the States, and I’m a travel nurse as well, so I have bounced around as part of my main job profile.

I’ve worked in a lot of different kinds of units, so I was used to that on the ship and seeing new things and kind of rolling with the punches — you certainly see things on the ship that you don’t see in The States. So, it was a learning curve for sure. But everybody’s so helpful all the time. And people were on the ship for the whole field service or just longer term. They are great resources for helping you orient to the different surgeries that we do that are pretty unique. And so, it was a learning curve, but for sure doable and so much fun.

Raeanne:

While seeing things that you don’t see in the States, and getting to learn new things that you would never get to learn in the States — tell us a little bit about how that has impacted your nursing career.

Ellee:

Coming back to the States, I had a different perspective on healthcare in general and how many resources we have in the US and our hospitals. So I have a bigger perspective. I’d say overall, just my mentality is a little bit different, a little bit difficult to go back to regular nursing in the States where you’re rushing all day long, like kind of busting your butt to get things done on the unit and a 12-hour shift.

Whereas on the ship, you work hard, but a lot of what your work is, is relational. And so, you get your medications done for them and then you get to color pictures for the kids, you get to dance, you get to sing get to make friendship bracelets, it’s so much fun. It’s much more interactive. You sit on their bed and speak with them learn about their background, where they’re from and about their village. And I think that’s part of the healing process too. And it just creates such an environment of joy and hope. And truly, I think it helps them heal quicker and heal better. It’s just so much fun.

Raeanne:

Maybe this is your answer, but I was going to ask what was your favorite part of your job in nursing on the ship?

Ellee:

I think that was it. I think it’s just the community style, how you can do the nursing work, which I love, the medication, the education, the dressing changes, making sure they feel comfortable and feel ready to leave and go back to the villages, whatever that may look like to show they have all the supplies they need and what to look for, for infection. You know, the education piece was so much fun. But then also after that, we got to put on music, learn about their music, dance with them go up to deck seven, get some fresh air together and just live life while you’re there together. It’s so different for them to be on a ship.

Oftentimes, they’ve never been on a ship. They’ve never been alongside of people from all different nations, the air conditioning is weird, the clothes are weird, the patient gowns — everything is oftentimes so strange for them! But to kind of meet them where they are and just make sure all the patients feel that we love them, that is most important. We’re there for them and no strings attached. And we just want them to be better, to feel loved by us and the Lord. And I think that’s the most special part, the relational aspect and how different it is and so much fun.

Raeanne:

So Ellee, you talk about getting to know the patients and the relationships that you build with them is so special. But how do you do that when there’s a language barrier?

Ellee:

There is quite a barrier! A lot of times in the countries that we serve, there are multiple, multiple local languages that are spoken. Usually there’s French, but not everybody speaks French. There can be a roomful of 20 patients and there are 12 to 15 different languages represented. The local translators that we get to work with are amazing. They are so, so crucial, and so wonderful to have. They’re always readily available.

They’re incredibly hardworking, incredibly intelligent, oftentimes, they can speak, you know, up to 4,5, or 6 languages! We could not do what we what we do without the translators. They become like family because they’re with us for our long hours, overnight shift. They’re just always available. They develop relationships with the patients as well, and are just such a bridge, they understand the culture, help us to understand how to communicate certain things to the patients effectively.

Raeanne:

And it’s so fun to that you also get to learn more about the local culture yourself by working with the local people in the hospital on the ship.

Ellee:

Just another small part that I like is that they provide so many jobs while they’re there to locals.

Raeanne:

What was there a patient that stood out to you in Senegal? I know each country offers different stories of patients and different things. Was there somebody in Senegal that that stood out to you?

Ellee:

There was. One of my favorite patients was a young man named Samba. And he was a favorite of a lot of different nurses and doctors! Everybody loved him and knew him, mostly because he was with us for 94 days! He came to us and had a pretty complicated surgery. I think he had three tumors that were removed from around his jaw.

So, he had extensive surgery and then unfortunately developed a couple of post op infections that were slow to heal. Because of that, he had a nice long stay with us. He had some breathing difficulties because the surgery is his airway was compromised. It was a tough, tough recovery for him, and he couldn’t speak or eat for a while. So, a lot of the way we communicated, all the nursing staff and the doctors was just hand motions, lots of thumbs up lots of just smiles.

Raeanne:

How old was he?

Ellee:

22 and he was just so courageous. Despite the infections and difficulties, slow healing, he was never discouraged, always cheerful always thanking us over and over again for every dressing change. And he was shy by nature, not only couldn’t he speak at the time, but he was very shy, but cheerful and like never discouraged. And we just all loved him. So, as he started to heal more and more, his diet got advanced. And I remember some of the nurses (I can’t take credit) had this wonderful idea of throwing him a birthday — he turned 23 while he’s on the ship. So, while the patients were up on deck seven time outside, we quickly transformed ward into a D into a huge surprise birthday party for him. We had party hats, we had chocolate pudding because he had just advanced his diet to more full liquids. That was very exciting. And we put up some banners and streamers everywhere. And he came down and he was so surprised. It was so precious.

He was just floored. And so again, so quiet and just smiling. And but you can see it in his eyes. He was so grateful. And we had a dance party, and everybody in the ward was celebrating and singing and all the patients were dancing. It was so much fun. Everybody had a hat on and was able to celebrate him. And I remember it was kind of starting to wind down and he went around to everybody and shook everybody’s hands and just was really expressing his gratitude for the love.

He became part of our family; he was there for such a long time. So that was really special. And shortly after that he did get discharged. Discharges for long term patients are often really special. We got everybody down there and lined the hallway on either side for him to walk out and down the gangway. And we all gave him huge, huge hugs and chanted His name as he walked down the gangway and just made it this big celebration of his recovery. We were all crying. But this is so special to be a witness of his journey that he made. He stole a lot of hearts! Samba was a really special young man.

Raeanne:

That’s something he’ll never forget. I mean, not only did he have his tumors removed and was healed, but he’s never going to forget that celebration that you guys gave him and just that beautiful farewell. So, such an incredible thing to get to be a part of and to get to witness. Now, you are actually returning Senegal, in a couple of weeks, I think you have been off the ship for a couple years, as many people have, but you’re just about to go back. So, tell us about that.

Ellee:

Yes, I will be returning at the end of May for another three months, I’m really excited about that. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go back. But the need arose, and I felt the call again. And a huge part of that was just to be able to finish the job that we started in Senegal, unfortunately, due to the pandemic, a lot of our patients didn’t get their surgeries they were promised, as has been mentioned here before and it was heart wrenching.

I wasn’t the one to deliver the news. A lot of other awesome people did that tough update for those patients, saying I’m not sure if we can ever finish your surgery, we’re going to try but it’s going to be a no for now. So, so incredible that we were able to return to Senegal this year and complete them. So, I wanted to be a part of that.

Raeanne:

Well, I’m really excited for you, Ellee that you get to go back and like you said, finish what we started. And that’s been going on for the last couple months now — there’s been quite a few surgeries already performed. So that’ll be great for you. I know that in Senegal, and probably in Guinea, too, I’m sure, but in Senegal, you got to get off and do some fun things off ship, just in your downtime on your off days. I know one thing was you got to play softball at the US Embassy, which seems to be like a pretty special opportunity! Tell us a little bit about some things that you did off ship.

Ellee:

Yeah, we had a lot of really fun off ship adventures. We formulate a softball team that was a blast. And we got to play other teams in the area. And we would go out and play other sports as well —basketball, Ultimate Frisbee, all sorts of things. So, it’s a really active community on the ship tons of opportunities to get off and do fun things. I loved doing all of those and I accepted any opportunity to join a club go running anything like that. That was so much fun. In Guinea and in Senegal, we had a lot of really fun opportunities to go off ship. You have a good amount of off days, and they encourage you to go experience local culture. So, I remember some of the things we would do. And in Guinea, we’d go to local islands, you could boat to local islands and explore. There were lighthouses, we went cliff jumping and it was so much fun and get to just explore. We visited waterfalls and went hiking, stayed overnight in these really neat kind of bungalows. In Senegal, we did a lot of surfing.

So, I’m excited to get back and do more of that. I didn’t know that there were so many surfing opportunities in Senegal, but there are so I learned to surf for the first time there. And you can go and experience local culture traditions, we went to something called a lion dance last, in 2020. We visited some other traditional things went to the desert, just a lot of really interesting things to do. I love experiencing new cultures and learning about what’s important to them, what makes them tick. Learning about the language, I’m really passionate about that. So that’s a kind of a byproduct of how wonderful Mercy Ships is. You get to experience new cultures and to travel, see new sights, it really gives you a bigger perspective on everything, I think.

Raeanne:

Your time volunteering is not just isolated to being on the ship. But as a volunteer, you also have the opportunity to go and learn about the local culture and the local country by exploring and having a lot of fun as well.

Ellee:

Yes, definitely. It is a ton of fun.

Raeanne:

Well, as we wrap up our time together, Ellee, you are returning this will be your third field service. And what is it about Mercy Ships that has changed your life and caused you to want to go back?

Ellee:

It’s difficult to describe how much it’s changed me. But I have just been so so thankful for the times that I’ve gotten to serve there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite more in the center of God’s will than then when I have worked on the ship just using the gifts and abilities, he’s given me by rubbing shoulders with so many amazing people. We’re all there for the same goal, same reason, and we don’t get paid. So, there’s nothing like that to distract you. Not that that is a distraction. But to take away from the true goal and focus everybody’s there for the same reason for the patients. That’s such an incredible environment to work in. And really felt like I was doing exactly what the Lord had me to do so many ways to help you know, other ways to serve volunteer while you’re there, outside of the hospital and help other departments. So, I guess just how fulfilling it is and how exciting it is and how very challenging sometimes and emotionally draining it can be at times, but overall, a joy and such an opportunity. And another quote from Dr. Gary is —you can’t change the whole world, but you can change the world for one person. Just to see those incredible transformations that Mercy Ships and the incredible surgeons get to provide for these patients. It’s truly Incredible to witness and to be a very small part of so that’s my that’s my best answer.

Raeanne:

It’s a great one. Well, Ellee, thank you so much for all that you do to change lives and I love that in turn your life has been impacted as well and we wish you a lot of blessings as you return in a couple of weeks to finish what we started. So, thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing with us your Mercy Ships journey.

Ellee:

Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

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.

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