Growing Up with Surgeons, and the Feeling of Home in Africa

Zodi Schwind moved on board the Africa Mercy with her family when she was 12 years old.  Growing up on the ship, she developed powerful insights that we often hear from adults. After graduating from the Mercy Ships Academy, Zodi headed off to college, pursuing a degree that was greatly influenced by her childhood aboard a hospital ship.

In this episode, Zodi tells us how seeing poverty daily impacted her, how shadowing an OBGYN in Madagascar changed her future, and why going to Africa felt like going home. This young woman has profound insights that will challenge your thinking and inspire you to leave a lasting impact on your world.

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’s Zodi Schwind is joining me on New Mercies. Zodi got on board the Africa Mercy with her family when she was just 12 years old and who she met, what she saw and the things she experienced during her time growing up on the ship has forever changed her. Get ready for some amazing insights from this young woman. Here is my interview with Zodi Schwind.

Raeanne Newquist:

Well, Zodi welcome to New Mercies. And thank you so much for sitting down with me today to share a little bit of your very unique Mercy Ships journey. You are about to go back to college and start another year, tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up on the Africa Mercy several years ago.

Zodi Schwind:

Thank you so much for having me. I am always so excited to talk about Mercy Ships. So, my family joined Mercy Ships in 2012 I was nine years old. We moved from California where my dad had just finished seminary. And at that point, we weren’t sure what we were going to do. My parents knew they wanted to go back into missions, and sidenote, they actually met through Mercy Ships as well! But they didn’t think that they would go back to Mercy Ships because God had opened new doors for us and so we’re debating on whether to go to Ethiopia where I was originally born and do ministry there or to go back with Mercy Ships. And God just led us back to the ship. And it was a family decision, which was a really big thing because that just really helped us as a family to feel like we were all together in the mission of Mercy Ships. And I was so excited. Oh, my goodness, I was so excited to go back to Africa because I was born in East Africa, but I’d never been to West Africa. I loved it.

Raeanne:

Tell us a little bit about your growing up.

Zodi:

I was born in Ethiopia and my sister and I were adopted, I was 4, and she was a baby. And so, my parents adopted us, and we came back to the States. so, we’re U.S. citizens. But we lived in New York for a year, then we lived in California for about five years. I grew up in an international community in California, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to go to the ship being surrounded by kids from all over the world because my best friends in California were from Vietnam, India, and Thailand. So that was pre-exposure, I guess you could say. So going to the ship was just an expansion of that.

Raeanne:

Wow, that’s so cool. So, you went to the ship as a little girl, before we hear about that real quick — I mentioned you’re just about to go back to college, so why don’t you let us all know really quick where you’re at and what you’re doing before we get back into your childhood on the ship.

Zodi:

I am attending George Fox University, which is a small, private Christian school in Oregon. And I’m studying biochemistry because I am interested in going to med school — shocker, the ship kind of inspired me! So, I’m going into my last year, and I’m just so, so excited. I love it. I love the major, there’s a lot to explore just in the sciences and the students that I’ve met there.

Raeanne:

That’s so cool. Well, I love that Mercy Ships inspired you so much as a little one on board, and your future has really been shaped by that. So, you got on the ship as a little girl, tell us a little bit about your childhood on board. What was that like for you?

Zodi:

I was prepared for the international aspect of being on board and being surrounded by community. I wasn’t actually prepared; I would say for being in West Africa. I loved it, and I was so excited, but I’d never been exposed to so much need and poverty, I’ve never seen that. And I think in the beginning, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that there are children on the streets who don’t actually have a family to go back to who like are willing to love them and also just provide for their daily needs. A lot of these people are just living on $1 a day. So that was huge for me and then interacting with the patients and thinking, oh my goodness, they don’t have access to medical care, and it suddenly hit. In the beginning, you’re kind of anxious about it, but then it just suddenly was like wait, actually, I can see people beyond just the tumor. That was definitely a big thing with my parents — they wanted us to be involved — again going back to that family decision, we were doing it together. So, this realization that I didn’t have to be scared to see a patient with a giant tumor because my mom was there with me. And we were interacting with this little girl or this little boy or this grown man, and that it was a person behind it. And so that was a big thing. In the beginning, I didn’t see the person I just saw whatever the illness was or even just the poverty, but then I would say about a year into it, I was like, Wow, there’s so much joy here, amidst the pain, there’s just an element of families together in this. It was a lot, to be honest. But it was transformative in so many ways.

Raeanne:

You mentioned that you were adopted at four years old from East Africa, and then being on the ship as a little girl, you encountered poverty that you had never seen before. It makes me wonder a little bit — what was your childhood like in East Africa? Before you were adopted? Do you remember those years at all?

Zodi:

I do, to an extent. I think as a kid, I had a lot more pictures and emotional memories versus actually comprehending what situation I was in. But again, my adoption was directly due to poverty, my biological family couldn’t provide for us. But they knew that the best way to care for us would be in a sense to give up your child. And again, I didn’t understand that until I was back in West African. I’m even processing it now as I’m talking. Poverty is not just this, I don’t know, idealized thing that we think of maybe in certain places in the states. No, it’s something that you just can’t get out of right away. You want to care for your family so much, but maybe the infrastructure in your country just doesn’t allow you to be able to in that sense, or the lack of education that was given to you. It can be just a hole that you feel like you’re stuck in, and it gave me definitely so much more sympathy towards my own story. There’s a reason why I was taken out of poverty. But there’s a reason why I’m called back to Africa, to go back and serve my people.

Raeanne:

And I know that some of our listeners will know your family personally, but a lot of them won’t. But you just have a phenomenal mom and dad and family who have really done an incredible job to point their children to Jesus and also give them God’s heart for the world. Well, it is one thing to be a small child on the ship, and I love that your parents were intentional to take you down to the hospital to interact with the patients. What was that like, though, being a teenager on board? Because that’s a little different season of life? What was that like for you?

Zodi:

Yes, being a teenager is definitely different on the ship. Because when you’re younger, when you’re a kid, you just kind of absorb experiences, and you make light of it, your imagination is just wild, and you’re having so much fun about everything. But then I feel like when you become a teenager, you become self-aware. And you’re like, oh my goodness, what do they think of me? I guess I should talk about the academy just a little bit. You only have so many students in your class, right? And I think being at one point, my sister and I were the only girls in Junior High, and we had probably like 10, guys. What does it mean to be a teenage girl on a ship, and you have friends who are like your weird pseudo siblings because you know everything about them?! And you live trying to navigate who you are in the context of a larger community. And I think that one thing that really helped me was to start making friends with young ladies that were on the ship because if you know anything about the ship, we have way more women than men. And so, I started getting to know some of the teachers which I will talk about one person, in particular, one of my French teachers, she had a huge impact on me, and realizing I can have conversations with adults and adults are actually really interesting. As a kid, you’re like, oh, why are people talking all the time? But then as you get older, you’re like, okay, there’s way more happening here. There was a feeling like somehow, we were contributing to the Mission of Mercy Ships. I’m understanding what medical capacity building actually is versus just hearing about it. Let me get involved in that sense, or, oh, I’m interested in writing, is there any way I could write a little bit about my experience on the ship, so maybe join the writing club? Again, I guess I could say writing was a great way for me to process my thoughts and emotions on board. But also, as a teenager, I did leave the ship for two years, and that gave me a different perspective on the ship. And when I returned, I realized man, I need to get more involved, this is a once in a lifetime experience that I almost took for granted when I was younger. But now, the networking you can make the ship, you are sitting at a table with an engineer with a nurse with a surgeon, and who knows who else, and there are galley workers who actually are lawyers. So networking, I became way more attuned to just the quality of people that were coming on board. And I was like, I want to get to know you. Why are you here? What are you doing here in the community, and what do you hope to do? So, engaging was a really big thing that I started to do more as a teenager.

Raeanne:

That’s such a mature thing. I mean, your maturity level as a teenager is mind-blowing. But you’re so right to really intentionally take advantage of these opportunities and these relationships around you. Was there a person, in particular, I’m sure there were many but was there a person in particular that really impacted you?

Zodi:

I mentioned my French teacher, her name is Miriam Corman, shout out to you. She was from Switzerland. So, I got to know her, and she was the French teacher for junior high and high school. And she had such bubbly energy for everybody in everything. She loved teaching French. But she also loved creating scavenger hunts for the retreats that we went on. And they were focused on returning us back to the heart of God and learning about who we are in the context of our relationship with God and how complex God is. And so, I loved her scavenger hunts and just the outlook that she had on life. She was always smiling. But she was also willing to talk about the hard things and quick to admit like, hey, I’m struggling. So that was encouraging to me as a kid on a ship because we have people visiting all the time. And it’s so easy to just say, oh, yeah, living on a ship is great all the time. And you know, just to put a happy face on and for a majority of the time, it is great, but it’s also life like everyday life is not great all the time. But we became really good friends, on one sail, we binge-watched the Jurassic Park series, and we drink chai and had cookies. And then I actually went and visited her when I was 16, and I went to Switzerland and had time with her. And she didn’t just impact my life, but she impacted, of course, my sister’s life, my mom’s life, and she spent Christmas with us quite a bit. So just a person in my life at that time that I really, really needed. And, yes, I want to go back and see her again.

Raeanne:

That is really neat. Well, you said that she’s from Switzerland and there are teachers in the academy from all over the world. That’s one of the unique aspects of the academy onboard our ships, but there are also a lot of other unique things that come along with learning on a ship as a student. So, can you tell us a little bit about some unique experiences that you had in the academy?

Zodi:

So, I just had to take 22 steps to get to school, which was kind of great! Actually, sadly, I was late sometimes, which that’s just sad on so many levels. Because we are such a unique school, we have a lot of unique experiences. So, field trips, they get very creative. So, one time when we were in Madagascar, we went to a lemur park. Then on a retreat in the Republic of Congo, we just went and camped on a beach, and we’re like, we’ll see what happens. And I made really good memories. I think what I really loved about the Academy was it was so small, and again, okay, that’s what I loved and also what was really hard at times. But I love that I could have a relationship with my teachers, beyond just the student-teacher relationship where it’s like, I actually could go to them and say, hey, you know, I’m struggling in my life, can you help me out.

And one of those teachers was Miss Robinson, who was my English teacher, the hardest teacher I’ve ever had. But the best teacher I’ve ever had. The advice she has given me has gotten me through college, how to write papers, and how to just articulate my ideas. Yes, so I really am so thankful for her and the teachers in general who just invest in you. And most importantly, they love God, and they love us as students. So, if you don’t feel seen by your teacher, go up to them, and be honest, because they’re human too.

Raeanne:

We just had Miss Susan on, and she was saying that one of her highlights was the retreats that they got to go on as students and teachers as well. With all of the uniqueness of this academy, tell us a story about something that you did in the academy.

Zodi:

You know, when you’re a teenager, you kind of test the limits just a little bit. I was in one of those places in my life where a lot was going on, and I was trying to understand myself and the situations I was in as well. So, we went on a youth retreat in Madagascar for a few nights and stayed at this pretty cool, eco-friendly park. But at this place, we also went on rafts down a river. I don’t know why, in retrospect, maybe they should have thought about this, but they put it all the teachers on one raft. And then we had a second raft with just students. But it was fun, because there were two guys on each side, two Malagasy guys, who had these long poles, and they were just pushing it against the bottom of the river so that we could go. It was really hot, and I was just sitting there, and I was like, huh, this water looks really nice. And of course, the teachers are way ahead of us. I’m like, they didn’t specify that we couldn’t swim. So, I was like, hey, you know, do it and apologize later. So, I took my shoes off and said, you guys, I’m going to jump in. And everyone was like, Oh, my word what?

I took my shoes off, and I just jumped. And it’s funny, because I think back on that, and I’m just like, it was such a moment of freedom in that moment where I was just seeing what would happen. And the water felt really nice. By the way, it was refreshing. It was all worth it. As I was swimming, I looked ahead and in the other raft and I can see the teacher’s heads shaking in that weird little angsty way. So, I crawled back onto the raft, put my shoes on, and we went back. But it was just one of those things where it’s like, being a ship kid doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It was just kind of a fun thing where it was harmless, and it was a lot of fun.

Raeanne:

Yeah, things that you’ll never regret! Well, other things that you’ll probably never forget are some of the crazy things that you learn when you live on a ship. So, tell us something that you learned from living on a ship.

Zodi:

Time is warped on the ship. Maybe because you have so many people who have different perceptions of time because certain cultures see time as a thing and others feel like what’s that? And so, in the West African countries we’re in, time doesn’t really exist. People exist.

So that’s what’s awesome. Something I learned was a way of life ship on life on board, but also kind of life on land — to be early is to waste time, to be on time is pointless, and to be late is desired.

It’s ridiculous! Don’t get there on time, nobody cares, you’re wasting your time. And unfortunately, this is passed on to my life here. If I get to class on time, that is perfect, I’m okay with that. But if I show up two minutes early, I’m like, oh, my word, I could have done so much, like read a paper and blah, blah, blah. But if I get there a little late, it’s okay. You know, it’s the guest of honor that arrives late. But time is weird on the ship. It doesn’t exist.

Raeanne:

That’s true. In fact, I say that ship years are like dog years, you know, time is so different on the ship. You can know someone for a week, and it seems like you’ve known them for five months. Well, how did you see lives change when you were on board?

Zodi:

Well, okay, so the Academy has something called work experience. And this is a week where students are able to shadow somebody in any department, you have to interview for it. So, you know, they really want to make it as real as they can for students to know how to enter the workspace. So, I applied to work at the Hope Center, which is where before a patient has surgery, they have to stay at the Hope Center, which is an off-ship facility where they wait before they go on board to have their surgery, and after their surgery, once they’ve been in a hospital for postdoc time. Then they’re brought to the off-ship help center so they can finish the recovery. So, I had the opportunity to work there twice, actually. And I was really touched by the patients because that’s a huge focus of Mercy Ships, but also the day crew. I got to have a lot of interactions with the day crew in being able to practice my French and being able to help mop the floors or pass out food to patients and hearing the stories from different day crew, and just try to teach them funny English/ American idioms. I loved seeing how much they were invested in Mercy Ships as well and how some of them were amazed by how much Mercy Ships was giving the to the patients. They also realized that they were a part of this too, a part of serving their people. And that’s what Mercy Ships wants to do; we want to be out of a job in the sense of people taking care of others in their own nation.

I also got to shadow medical capacity building. So again, I shadowed a nurse. And I went to local hospitals with him, and I got to see how they take care of their patients. And then I was with him as he trained local nurses on how to read an EKG, and all of these little things that were just amazing to see how receptive people were in whatever nation we were in to be able to learn something to better their own people, not for foreigners just to change everything because that’s not sustainable. Right. And I was just I was amazed by the desire to learn and desire to share.

I was also impacted a lot as well by the day crew that helped my dad. So, on the ship, he worked as a staff development manager, and then he worked in hospital chaplaincy, and my dad was really intentional about our family getting to know the day crew he worked alongside. In each country, we became close to the men my dad worked with, and we called them uncle. In Congo, we went to meet the family of the day crew my dad worked with, and my dad remained close to him. And he actually helped with the entire adoption process of my brothers. My brothers are from the Republic of Congo. So that was a three-year process, and because of the relationships we’re able to build with him through Mercy Ships, he went out of his way to meet regularly at the courts to make sure that the process went through. I was just so touched by the day crew. And I have learned so much, and I’ve taken so much away from that type of kindness, open-heartedness, generosity.

Raeanne:

Ah, and it’s so neat that you experienced this, really, as a child and in your adolescence, because a lot of what you’re sharing and the impact that your time on the ship made on you is something I think we hear from adults, you know, but how incredible that we also give that opportunity to young people in Mercy Ships. The kids who come with their parents who are serving, their lives are impacted as well. And they have access to all these things. Where else would a high school student be able to shadow nurses and doctors and what they’re doing and be alongside patients who are recovering at the Hope Center, just extravagant opportunities that the young people have onboard our ships. It’s incredible. I know that when you were on the ship, I think it was maybe your last year before you left for college, you got to go back and visit Ethiopia with your family. Was that your first time back? And can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Zodi:

It was my first time back, and I fell in love with it all over again. Ethiopia has always had a special place in my heart because I have memories of it. And my parents were really intentional about making sure we were plugged into the Ethiopian community. So, eating Ethiopian food, we had a lot of Ethiopian dresses, and there was even an Ethiopian adoptee summer camp in California where families got together who’d adopted children from Ethiopia but who wanted to integrate their children into the culture but retain their Ethiopian culture too. So, when I went back to Ethiopia, it was a combination of all of that. And I felt like this is where I belong, I’m home again. My sister and I experienced it very differently because we have different stories. But for me, I went back to my village, I met my biological family again, and they were so welcoming of all of us, my parents especially, and my dad made an interesting comment. He said, a lot of times in a lot of certain West African villages we go to, it’s so apparent that he’s white, and everybody makes a big comment, like, both my parents are white. And so, it’s like, oh, you’re the foreigner, all this attention is going to be put on you. And you’re going to still feel like an outsider. But my dad said when he went back to Ethiopia, your village took me in as their own. And they were part of the family. And that was amazing. And for me, it just was like full circle because I prayed for years for my biological family. I’d pray, God, I don’t know my family, but please make sure they’re alive still, and that I can meet them, and that there can be restoration because there were a lot of things I was dealing with after being adopted. And just I felt the healing. And I was like, wow, this chapter of my life being an adoptee will always be a part of my life, but there’s healing now. And that chapter can close in my life. I feel like I have been called back to Ethiopia. I was called out for reason, and I’ve been called back for a reason. And I felt that a lot. The food is amazing. Which I mean, just saying that, yeah, it makes it easier to go back. Really the air smells the spices! And the people are really gracious and kind, of course, I mean, I can say that about any country. But I really felt it, and of course, I was biased.

Raeanne:

So special. What an awesome opportunity and I love that your parents were intentional in making that happen for you. That is a really beautiful thing. Well, I know that was just one thing that impacted you. But growing up on the ship, what are some other ways that your life has been changed because of your experience on board? And how has it influenced your future?

Zodi:

I think going back to what you’d mentioned about almost speaking from the point of view of an adult of what I’ve gained from living on board, and I know adults have said a lot of the same things. But I think the biggest difference between living on board as an adult and living on board as a child is that your foundational years are created on the ship. As an adult, you’ve had a lot of time to mature and a lot of time to have so many other things that have built you into who you are. But as a kid on the ship, your adult life will always be impacted by what you’ve seen on the ship, who you become will be whether you want it to be or not. And again, that looks different from both me and my sister. But even for both of us, I can say service is really big, like service-mindedness and I was just talking to her a couple of days ago.

She looks at me, and she’s like, money has never been a huge thing for me — our parents have been volunteers for most of our lives. And so, she was saying, I don’t want to get a career because of money, I want to get a career to change lives like to be able to impact other people. And I thought the same thing I was like, man, I don’t stress about money. When I have a job, I want to be intentional about saving money to be able to give to people. And of course, I think the biggest takeaway would be medicine. I do want to go into medicine. I was so impacted by the surgeons I met on board, especially of Dr. Gary, legendary Dr. Gary. And someday, hopefully, when I’m a doctor, I would love to practice with him just for a little bit. That’d be amazing. But yes, I want to go into medicine because I didn’t share the story earlier, but I’ll just kind of say briefly, when I was 12, the Africa Mercy was in Madagascar, and I got to shadow an OBGYN at our fistula clinic. So Vaginal fistula is something that occurs when a woman is in prolonged labor, and it’s obstructed. So, she’s in labor for like three or four days. So, by that time, she’s lost her baby, and then she’s also left problems, and she’s incontinent. And she’s pushed out of her community, and she just feels isolated. And so, there are women that were treated on the ship who had had a fistula for over 20 years. And I was able to go and shadow this surgeon, this OBGYN in Madagascar and I went to the clinic, and I saw the patients and the glow after the surgery, and realizing they were dry, and then we had a dress ceremony. So, they got adorned in these beautiful dresses that they could take home, and hearing their testimonies about how they now felt whole, it was all so beautiful. And I think the thing is, they were whole before, and I want to be a part of saying you have dignity before the surgery, just as much as you have dignity after. This is what I want to do, I want to become an obstetrician, and gynecologist and Ethiopia has a huge need for fistula surgeons. And so, I want to do that because I have seen the impact of it.

And one really quick thing is this is really crazy — last summer here in Texas I wanted to shadow an OBGYN. So, we go to this clinic here in the Tyler area, and I met this doctor, and I’m like, why do you look so familiar? And I said to him, have you ever worked for Mercy Ships? And he’s like, yes, I was at their VF clinic in Madagascar. I was like, Are you, Dr. Putman? Oh, my word. He was the same surgeon that I had shadowed in Madagascar when I was12 years old! And he was the one that sat me down, and he told me the hard truth about being an OBGYN. But he also said l how fulfilling it had been as a profession. And so, I got to shadow him last summer here in the States and worked at a low-income clinic. So, it was kind of the same environment that I want to work in, being able to help people here in the states who just don’t necessarily have the insurance to pay for regular checkups.

Raeanne:

Wow, that is so cool. Well, I just love how God does these special things, full circle moments to just kind of bring confirmation in your life to say, yes, you’re on the right path, you know, you’re doing exactly what you were created to do. It is so special to hear just how your life has been impacted. And how Mercy Ships has really formed the trajectory of your life and where you want to go because of what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. Thank you so much for sharing just a little bit of your Mercy Ships journey with us today, you are so articulate and so inspiring. I know I’ve just been very challenged and encouraged by you today, and I know that our listeners have been as well so thank you so much.

Zodi:

Thank you so much for having me, it was like a processing time to kind of think through my own story because I haven’t thought about in a while, you know, life goes on, and I’m here in school and all, but just to sit and remember has been so good for me. Thank you.

Raeanne:

For more information about Mercy Ships, go to mercyships.org. Come back next week for another amazing guest sharing their Mercy Ships journey.

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.