Giving the Gift of Touch
Kelly Denning is a nurse from Australia who has served three field services onboard the Africa Mercy. On the ship, Kelly loves to share her passion for music with the crew, but it is what she shares in the wards that has transformed lives. In this episode, Kelly shares about the privilege of giving patients the gifts of touch, love, and value.
From a woman who hid in the bush for 30 years alone to a grandmother who feared losing her granddaughter, Kelly shares how she and the nurses and doctors onboard offer gifts of hope to people in desperate need.
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 the countries we serve.
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.
Well, it’s officially December and the holiday season is in full swing. We talk a lot about giving gifts at the Christmas season. So, for the month of December on New Mercies, we’re going to be talking about the gifts of hope that our nurses and doctors give patients on our hospital ships.
Today, I’m sitting down with nurse Kelly Denning. And it’s so exciting to actually be sitting with you today in person, Kelly, you’ve literally traveled from the other side of the globe from Australia. So thanks for taking time to share with us today.
So Kelly, you have been a nurse on the Africa Mercy for three field services. And you’ve seen many things, and you’ve had the privilege of sharing many beautiful moments with patients. So, start us off with telling us a little bit about your time with patients on board and the special gifts that you’ve given them.
I think one of the most important gifts that we can give anyone is to see them and to connect with them and see them as people. And I think so many of our patients become people of the shadows. They’ve got disfigurements or conditions that isolate them from society, even their families. But one patient that really comes to mind as far as a gift that I was privileged to give, was that gift of connection and that gift of seeing her, and like the gift of touch.
So, her name is R and she’s I think 47 years old. And she’s from Guinea, she lived in upcountry and Guinea. And she came to us towards the end of the field service in our women’s health program. So, R was married as a really young teenager, I think 13 or 14 years of age, and she fell pregnant pretty early on to her marriage. And when she went into labor, her baby became stuck. And so, she labored for days and days. And she ended up having a fistula.
So, a fistula is essentially a hole in something that shouldn’t be there. So, for a lot of women that have birthing injuries, that would be that the baby essentially just gets stuck and will make holes through anything to get out of the body. So for R, that meant that she delivered a baby that had passed away that never breathed outside. She was left with gaping holes in her body where there weren’t supposed to be holes. So, she had a bladder that just constantly leaked, she had no control over it.
And so, she was you know, she was a baby, she was a teenager. And as a baby, she lost her baby. And her husband at the time, she was disgraceful to him. So, she was leaking. And because she was leaking urine, she was smelly. She wasn’t able to produce a child for him. There was a lot of shame associated around those things. So essentially, he said to her, “Go out to the bush, nobody wants you. You smell, your offensive, I don’t want you to be my wife anymore. I don’t want to be around you.”
So, R went back to her family in the village. And they said, “No, your husband’s right. We don’t want you around and you do smell and we don’t want you around us anymore.” So R went into the bush and she lived in the bush for 30 years. She was alone for 30 years, leaking urine. Her days looked like she just would try and get whatever kind of food that she could to survive. And she told me she used to sell, you know, whatever she could find to try and sell at the markets and but every night she would wash her clothes out and she would hang them, you know, over a tree or something to try and dry them out overnight. And she’d sleep naked on the ground in the bush alone, because she you know, she wanted to have dry clothes for the morning, only to put them on again and they’d be wet again.
So, she really was a true outcast of society. She lived alone in the bush for 30 years. And I learned very quickly how desperately she hungered for human connection. So, when I met her all she ever wanted to do was hold my hand and she she’d push her face up against my face and she just loved being held. She loved being hugged, she loved being looked at, you know, to be able to look in the eyes of this beautiful… you know, she was a young woman she is a young woman but has really suffered so, just epically and you know, she looks a lot older than she actually is… and to be able to give her that gift of actually seeing her and sitting with her and looking in her eyes and holding her hand and reminding her that she is so precious and she is not forgotten. She has not forsaken and she is adored. That was an immense privilege to be just to play a tiny part in God’s, you know, reminder to her that she is a precious, precious woman.
So, when she first came on board, she was very, very withdrawn, very, you know, scared, she hasn’t been treated well by people for a very long time. And so, she was very quiet when she came on board. And then throughout her time there, she just opened up and she just became a completely new person. And this was well and truly before she knew what the outcome of her surgery would be, because you don’t find out instantly. They’ll have surgery, we keep a catheter in that it just let their bladder rest for a significant amount of time. And so, she was there for a long time. She just opened up and she just was just this crazy, joyful woman. She was rejoicing and dancing and singing. And you would have thought she had had this miraculous overnight transformation physically, because spiritually and emotionally and mentally and socially, she was a completely different person.
Wow. You know, sometimes it’s easier to focus on the physical brokenness that needs to be healed, because it’s what we can see. But the emotional and mental brokenness needs healing as well. That’s why we say we offer hope as well as healing to hurting people. And sometimes that hope offered can actually be more important than the surgery. So Kelly, what does it mean to you that Mercy Ships doesn’t just offer surgery, but they offer hope, as well. And tell us how you’ve seen that hope be given to patients on board.
I like that you talked about it being so much more than the physical and it truly is. It’s, I think, what we do as far as surgery goes, and physical healing is just such a small, small part of what we do. Dr. Gary Parker talks a lot about the table of humanity and being able to have a seat at the table of humanity. And when somebody has a terrible disfigurement, when they have a massive facial tumor, when they have leg deformities, when they have fistulas are things that make them outcast, things that make them people of the shadow, they lose their place at the table of humanity. They’re no longer seen.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, you know, some people are cared for well by their communities. That’s true as well. But a lot of people are outcast. And so, Dr. Gary Parker talks about, you know, in restoring, particularly giving someone the dignity of having a face, we assume a lot by what somebody looks like, particularly, you know, we do a lot of a lot of surgery on people with face deformities with facial burns with facial tumors. And as much as we’d like to say, we see what’s on the inside. First, we don’t we see people from the outside and we see their face, and but what does it look like when you no longer have the face that you were born with or the face that you recognized as. To me, it’s almost like they’re kind of locked inside this jail because the person that they’re portraying to the outside world is no longer who they really are.
So what does it look like if you don’t have a face anymore? And being able to restore somebody’s face by either doing a huge amount of plastic surgery and rotating skin around giving them a lip giving them an eyelid, you know, gives them a place back at the table of humanity. They’re allowed to have a voice, they’re allowed to be seen, they don’t have to sit in the heart, they didn’t have to hide under a tree, they don’t have to hide in the bush, like R did, you’re giving them a place back at the table.
And having a place back at the table of humanity that in itself is offering so much more than the physical. That is hope. Then in that you have the hope of a future the hope of being part of the community, the hope of having your own children having your own family, and you see it well and truly before our patients have surgery. We meet them often at the Hope Center weeks before they have surgery or even when they’re having screening down in the tents — we have a screening tent that’s normally down on the dock — and we go down and we’ll see the patients there and you can see that they’re already starting to change because they’re surrounded by people who have similar conditions to them. And they realize, ah, I’m not alone in this. I haven’t done something wrong. I didn’t touch a voodoo stick. I’m not cursed. I’m not forgotten. I’m not forsaken. It’s not something I did that led me to have a cleft palate or cleft lip or bowed legs. I’m seen by people and I’m part of the community and that in itself starts to breed hope.
I just think that’s really, really special. Because we all know that the bodies we have, even if they’re quote unquote normal or healthy. They’re not going to last and they’re going to change over time. But if we can be given hope that we’re valued and that we’re important and that we’re special and we belong, that is something that can’t be taken from us and that’s really special.
Yeah, well, I mean, if all we did was transform the physical, that’d be a bit of a waste of time, kind of. Because 100% of us are going to die. That’s just a fact. I mean, you look through the Bible, all of the miracles, you know, Lazarus died again, all the people that Jesus healed, they died again. But it’s what happened in the healing. And it’s the hope that they were given in the healing the hope of a new life, the hope of a resurrected life, the hope of “Oh, I am loved and chosen.” Everybody will heal, they’ll become ill again. All of us, eventually will become sick and die. But being able to live with hope, the hope that there is so much more than this, you know, that’s where we see the transformations. We see the transformations and people’s outlook on life, we see whether or not we’re giving back the gift of sight to a blind child, or to a blind grandfather. And because that grandfather is blind, his grandchildren don’t get to go to school because they have to look after their grandfather. And the impact of that is multigenerational.
But in restoring the site to grandfather, he now a has independence and he can go and he can sell things at the market if he wants to. But his children can also go to school. The impacts of so much more than just the one. While we do see the one and focus on the one — which is so important, because if you’re not seeing the one, what’s the point — but it also becomes just this ripple effect that goes right throughout their community, because we live in community. And if we can help one person within their community, then the impacts of far beyond what we can even imagine.
Wow. So, Kelly, having served for three field services in three different countries on the Africa Mercy, I’m sure your life has been impacted. In many ways, I’m sure you’ve been blessed and received gifts from your time volunteering. Share with us a little bit about that.
I mean, it’s very difficult to pick just one thing. I’m a very different person to who I was four years ago, I have received so many gifts. I mean, I think a lot of people who support me and love me think that I’m going off to do this amazing thing.. and I’m so generous with my time and my gifts, and I just don’t see it that way. I know and recognize that I receive so much more than I give. You know, the gift of living in community. There’s the good and the bad of being in community, but there’s so much good. There is just such a gift to be standing in the line with somebody waiting for your meal, and they say “Hey, how’s your day going?” And you can say, “Actually, it’s pretty terrible A,B,C.” And the response isn’t “I will pray for you.” The response is “Okay, let’s pray that,” you know, actually getting to live life with people is so beautiful, I’m so different. The gift of living in community has definitely just opened my eyes, it’s given me a new perspective. The gift of just meeting some amazing people, you know, from somebody that’s lived in the bush for 30 years, what an immense privilege to care for her.
Or you know, I think of Aissiatou who, you know, lived up in the mountains in in Cameroon who I cared for own in the first field service I worked on… and what a tremendous privilege to, to meet these people and to be welcomed into what I believe is a very sacred space.
I think as nurses, we do have an immense privilege to sit in those spaces that not many people are welcomed into. And not only are we welcomed into it, it’s an expectation that we will sit in some of the hardest days of people’s lives. And, and that is a true gift and a true privilege. And I would like to say I don’t take that for granted. I’m sure that there’s probably occasions that I do but and as a general rule, I don’t believe that I take that for granted. I see it as an incredible privilege to sit with people on their worst day, but also on their best day.
You know, when we take a catheter out of a woman who’s been leaking for a decade, and she finds that she is continent, and you know that her bladder is healed and that she can still have children and to be able to sit with her and like that’s a gift. Yeah, it’s an immense gift to see those transformations. And definitely seeing miracles. I have had the tremendous gift of being a witness to many, many miracles. And quite regularly actually, and I think part of living on board… I guess we don’t have a lot of the things that we have at home. And the nice thing is that sometimes it’s actually that God just, He is the last option. He’s the only option. You don’t have other things to rely on. So the way that I see the Lord work there is just so tangible and so, so beautiful.
I think one example of an amazing miracle was a six-year-old girl I looked after her name’s Djimby. She had her full medical checkup; she has no medical history. She’s a healthy six-year-old girl who happens to have very bowed, very deformed legs. And so, she came in to have surgery with us in December. And it should have been a really quick surgery a very easy surgery — even though the outcomes are tremendous, and they are dramatic — the surgery itself was actually very small. And so, you know, I was expecting this child to be out of theater within an hour. And after a couple of hours, I was thinking, what is happening, why is not my second patient not being asked to, you know, come into theater. So, I ended up walking down to the operating theatre office.
And in the office there, there are screens that show what’s going on in each theater. And one of the office ladies was in there praying with their hands outstretched to the theater. And I could see that in the theater that my patient Djimby was in. There were many, many people in there, which is never a good thing. And basically, she was being resuscitated. They had been resuscitating her for some time. And then our lead orthopod, Dr. Frank, he came out and he said, Kelly, can you please get chaplaincy to go and prepare grandma? So, Djimby came in with her grandmother, who as her caregiver, so he said, “Can you go and get chaplaincy to prepare grandma? Because I don’t know that she’s going to be coming out of here.”
And he said, while you’re at it, “Can you please get chaplains to come down and pray over the operating theatre because we have nothing left. This child, we can’t oxygenate her… We are working on her as hard as we can. But for some reason, we cannot get her lungs to oxygenate.” And so, they were working on her and we had chaplaincy come down. And he also said, and while you’re at it, “Please call the captain of the ship and ask the captain to make a ship wide announcement to tell everyone on board to stop whatever you are doing and pray that this child lives because they had run out… All the experts were in there, everybody was working on her. And they just could not get her little body to oxygenate. So, everybody heard the announcement except for the operating theater. So, in theaters, it stays nice and quiet as it should so that they can concentrate. Grandma’s down the end of the hospital in the chaplaincy room being prepared to not have a granddaughter anymore.
And chaplaincy, our chaplaincy team is praying over the operating room and the captain announces: Everyone stop, everybody pray. And so, I walk back to the ward to tell them to tell my team that it’s our patient that this is happening to, and we gather. And as I walk past each ward, each of the units are praying, they’re standing there holding hands and praying. So we gather, we gather our team together and we pray in the name of Jesus. And just so recognizing that God is the ultimate physician because it gives us every single breath and recognizing that.
And we just stood there and we prayed in Jesus name. And we said, “Lord, this child is yours. You love her so much more than we do. And we fully believe that you can bring her back and that you can restore her.” And so we stood together and we prayed desperate prayers, and we cried and prayed. And soon later I had a phone call saying, “Can we prepare ICU she’s doing better. We’re oxygenating her she’ll need to come back to ICU.”
And so I started trying to organize that and then really not long later again. I had another phone call saying… Kelly. It was actually from Dr. Frank, and he called Kelly can you go and get grandma? Djimby’s awake and she wants an apple juice and she wants grandma.” We’re all crying. I’m crying. I’m trying to hold myself together trying to be a good leader suck the tears back. And then I went down to the chaplain, to the chaplaincy room and got grandma and I said, “Did you hear that announcement asking us to pray? I said, we on the ship. Our entire community stopped and we have been praying in Jesus name and the Lord has heard and Djimby is awake. And she really wants to see you. And she also wants an apple juice.”
So grandma’s crying I’m crying. And we’re shouting, “Hallelujah.” And Grandma needed an apple juice to she was about to faint because it was all very overwhelming. And so then I took grandma into the operating room, sorry, into the recovery room. And you know, we were just both overwhelmed just with such gratitude and just tears streaming down our face. And every time I have seen… because Djimby was with us for a long time, all of our kids who have orthopedic surgery are with us for about three months… every time I saw grandma, she would throw her hands in the air, and she would say, “Hallelujah, hallelujah.”
So the gifts that I just continue to receive on board, they just they challenged me. And they just elevate my faith to a new level. Anytime I try to put God in a box and think that, oh, He couldn’t possibly do this. He’s just like, totally outside the box. And He just brings another miracle, or it brings it to a new level. You know, as if challenging my faith saying, “Hey, don’t turn me down, I can do bigger I can do beyond what you have asked or ever imagined.”
Yeah, I think it was Corrie ten Boone, who said, “Our inability is God’s opportunity to show up big to show off, you know, to do these incredible miracles.” And you’re really never the same again, after you experience stuff like this. I love to the fact that our God is so kind and so gracious that He does miracles like that in our own lives. All the time. You know, it’s not just the severe situations, but He is able to meet us right where we’re at in our places of need. That’s pretty special.
I definitely, in seeing that and having the gift of seeing tangible… it doesn’t make sense to science. It doesn’t make sense to medicine… in seeing those miracles, I now pray things like “Lord help me to see those miracles.” Because there are so many more miracles around us. But we’re just so blind to a lot of what the Lord does here. I think sometimes and so I do pray, like helping to see what you’re at, because I know that you’re at work.
Well, I know, having been on the ship myself that the holiday season onboard is very, very special. You’ve have many cultures together, celebrating Christmas, and you get to experience things that you’ve never experienced before. What is a Christmas highlight for you?
So definitely one of my favorite things is that you get to experience other people’s and other cultures all their traditions. So that’s always really fun. So, there’s always throughout December, there’s always a lot of things going on, which is very fun. One of the things that I have really enjoyed being involved in and organizing is one of the Australian traditions, which is carols by candlelight. So, it started I can’t remember how many years ago but in Perth, and it’s basically a carol service, but it’s outside with candles.
So obviously in Australia, it’s summer during Christmas, so it’s not freezing. And I know they certainly do carols by candlelight and other countries as well. But it’s a very big cultural thing at home that we have a carol service outside. And so yeah, the first time I was on board the ship in Cameroon, I organized and ran a carol service there and I’ve done it, for the three years in Cameroon and Guinea and in Senegal. And it’s one of my favorite events.
I think it’s one of my favorites because we get to invite the patients as well as their caregivers as well as the day crew. So, a lot of our other traditions that we do and we share on board we just mostly share with the crew, you know, in our community on board. But this one, we invite everybody. And for the three prior years, orthopedics has always run as well. And so, our kids that have orthopedic surgery, I would say 99.5% of them will have full leg casts, so that’s toe to hip, that is a very large cast. And some people have one, but majority of the time they have two casts, so they have the heaviest legs in the world. And they are on deck three. And so, they have to come up to deck five, and then we have to say them back down the gangway again. So, we normally have a troupe of crew who come down and scoop up our kids in their arms and they carry them up the stairs, and then they carry them down the gangway and the cute little babes sit there with little toes sticking out… but yeah, it’s definitely one of my favorites. So. we have big Carol service. And yeah, it’s really it’s really special.
And is everyone given candles too?
Everybody is given candles. So, it’s always part of the adventure is trying to find candles in whatever country we are in. I’m good at delegating as well. So, I haven’t actually done the shopping for the candles myself. There’s a whole team of us, which is really nice.
How did the patients respond to that experience? I can only imagine that that’s something they’ve never experienced before sitting outside on a dock with hundreds of people singing songs not in their native language. What have some patients said to you about that?
They love it, they love it so much. And they, they love that. I mean, we sing and dance on the ward all the time. And I’ll often take a guitar and sing with them. And they love singing, they love dancing, but they definitely love being a part of our community as well. And a lot of the people that are there, you know, have visited patients at the Hope Center or have visited them down the ward. And so, they know they have met them, but it’s really nice to them to do something like that and to be a part of a special event like that. And they recognize that it’s a special event.
And usually, I’ll have parts of it translated into different dialects or local languages. But one of my favorite responses was when I was in Guinea, it was, I think it maybe was the next day or that night when I was back down on the ward. And this grandmother, who I knew was a very strong, Muslim-believing woman. And she came up to me afterward… And at the end, right at the end of our carol service, there was just this really light sprinkling of rain. It was just after I was closing up the service and was praying for everybody right at the end. And I think it was that night or the next day, but this grandma came up to me and she pulled over a translator, she was making sure that I understood what she was saying and she said, “When you pray to your Jesus, He hears you, and He sprinkles us all with our blessing afterward.” So that’s probably well that’s definitely one of my favorite responses from the carol services is they’re recognizing that we do have a God that hears us and responds and gives us what we need.
Well, Kelly, thank you so much for not only sharing with us these incredible stories but also thank you for giving yourself to so many people I know you have been a blessing to many patients and to many of the crew I know I have been blessed by you. So, thank you for the gift that you are, and Merry Christmas.
Thanks, Raeanne. Merry Christmas.
Next week on New Mercies, we’ll continue talking about gifts of hope as I sit down with Dr. Brian Barki, an anesthesiologist who brought his wife and three children to live on board the Africa Mercy.