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Potsdam native recalls two-year mission aboard African hospital ship


POTSDAM - Imagine having a large tumor protruding from your face, a cleft lip, or maybe even something as simple as cataracts, but not having access to any medical attention and being forced to live with your ailments as an outcast in your community.

While this may sound far-fetched, Laura K. Coles, 29, a native of Potsdam, has spent roughly the past three years of her life helping people in these situations while aboard the Africa-Mercy, a 500 foot ship with a 78-bed hospital on board.

“It’s quite an amazing experience,” she said, noting her time aboard the ship began with a three-and-a-half month stay in January 2010.

“It’s almost impossible not to go back,” she said, explaining that she then did a four-month stint on board the ship, before signing on for a two-year commitment with Mercy Ships, a non-profit organization that operates four ships that have, to date, served the residents of 35 of the world’s poorest nations.

During her time with Mercy Ships, Ms. Coles said she’s done two stints in Togo, as well as stops in Sierra Leone and Guinea, returning to the U.S. two weeks ago.

Mercy Ships U.S. Public Relations Coordinator Pauline Rick said that during her time with Mercy Ships, which was all spent on the Africa Mercy, Ms. Coles served as a nurse, nurse educator, charge nurse, ward nurse and nursing supervisor.

“I’ve seen all kinds of things,” Ms. Coles said. “I don’t know where to start.”

When the ship first arrives in a community, Ms. Coles said they’re really busy seeing patients and scheduling surgeries, but once that screening process is complete things onboard are a little less chaotic.

“I would see all the patients who wanted to be treated, but not everybody would be eligible for surgery,” she said. “It was access for them to a doctor for free.”

Ms. Coles explained the way the health care system in many African nations works is patients are required to pay up front for treatment.

“If you can’t afford it, it just doesn’t get done,” she said. “For that reason, we’ve seen things that are very treatable that just don’t get fixed, like a 50-year-old with a cleft lip or facial tumor. They might not have access to a hospital or there may be no doctors in their area trained to treat that.”

One patient came to the ship with a football-sized tumor on her face and during the course of her operation it became apparent she would need a blood transfusion to get through the procedure.

In stepped Ms. Coles, along with eight other crew members from five different countries.

In a story detailing those events on the organization’s website, it is explained that situations like this aren’t out of the ordinary on board one of their ships.

“On the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, there are still limited resources to store blood. But what the Africa Mercy lacks in storage capacity, it makes up for in its steady supply of willing volunteers,” the organization writes. “Without our crew donors, surgeries like (this) would not be possible.”

Speaking about one of her more memorable cases, Ms. Coles also said she treated a man who came to them “without a face.”

“He had lost his face to disease,” she said. “When he left (with a face) his plan was to get a wife and have children. He could be a part of the community again.”

Ms. Coles explained that people with tumors, cleft lips or other disfiguring ailments are often viewed as cursed and are treated like outcasts.

“In Africa being a part of the community is a very big deal and if you’re an outcast, it’s very much like you don’t exist.”

In fact, watching people leave the ship, knowing they can return home to their communities, is perhaps the most rewarding part of working onboard a Mercy Ship.

“My favorite part is the transition - watching them come in thinking they’re outcasts and not worthy of being loved and then receiving love from the staff,” she said. “It’s a complete change and they leave confident, joyful and excited about life.”

Among the photos of Ms. Cole’s journey submitted by Mercy Ships were pictures of a set of twins. One of the babies was happy and healthy, but the other was malnourished and had a cleft lip that prevented him from receiving the same nutrition as his sister.

According to a blog written by Ali Chandra, another volunteer aboard the ship, the baby came to them weighing only six pounds at four months old. Less than two weeks later the baby weighed more than nine pounds and in two months he gained all of the weight needed and became healthy enough to undergo surgery for his cleft lip, actually becoming the larger of the two twins in the process.

The even more amazing thing, is Ms. Coles was a part of all this without receiving any monetary compensation for the nearly three years of her life spent aboard the Africa Mercy.

“Everyone on the ship paid to be there,” she said. “We would either work to earn enough to be there or we were sponsored by local churches and our friends. It’s totally volunteer.”

Ms. Coles said she first heard about Mercy Ships through a friend of hers in nursing school.

“One of my friends from nursing school talked about it all the time. She went to Liberia,” Ms. Coles said. “I prayed a lot about it and decided, ‘You know what, it’s going to be a great experience.’ And then I ended up going back.”

While Ms. Coles said she could see herself returning to the ship again in the future, right now she’s playing catch up with her friends and family and looking for a job. She said she would like to teach clinical practice at a nursing school.

“There’s a lot of catching up to do after two years,” she said, adding that last summer she did return home to the U.S. for six weeks while the ship was being maintained.

“We do 10 months of what they call field service,” she said, noting the ship sails to a port in west Africa where the hospital is then set up for 10 months.

“Then they pack up, do maintenance and sail to the next place,” she said.

As for the time away from friends and family, Ms. Coles said that’s the hardest part of the experience.

“It’s difficult. I think that’s probably one of the hardest things, being away from your friends and family for so long,” she said. “I have a niece who is two months old, and I haven’t met her yet, but I will this weekend.”

Reiterating how she first got involved with Mercy Ships, she said not everyone who volunteers has to stay for so long, and not everyone has to have a medical background either.

“The ship is kind of like a small town. It just happens to have a hospital. They even have a small school, so we need teachers,” she said. “We even have a library and cafe.”

Ms. Rick said jobs are available on the ship for just about anyone.

“We have cooks, engineers, school teachers maritime captains, deck crew, accountants, dining room staff and many other positions,” she said, explaining the teachers aren’t for the African children, but rather people working on the ships who have their entire families on board.

“I think a lot of people know about Africa and how its people need help,” Ms. Coles said. “I went to Africa to serve and got served in return.”

She explained, “I learned about joy and what it means to have joy when you have nothing, patience and creativity. There is so much they can teach us,” she said. “I went to love and give of myself and in return they taught me so much. It’s an eye-opener, not only to see the conditions they live in, but to truly learn what it means to be a part of the community.”

Ms. Coles is the daughter of Dave and Jean Cole of Potsdam. She lived in Potsdam until she was 9, at which point her family moved overseas.

“I grew up in Asia, but I still call Potsdam home,” she said.

To learn more about Mercy Ships and how you can help, or how to become a volunteer yourself visit their website.

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