Saying our goodbyes…too soon
Well, that was an interesting way to end a summer - a week in Pointe Noir, Congo on the Africa Mercy. It wasn't a beach vacation or a place to escape the heat and humidity, but I wouldn't have traded it for the swankiest timeshare anywhere.
Today, we observed a fire evacuation drill with some of the crew playing the role of patients preparing or recovering from surgery. Thankfully, a bit of cloud cover and a light breeze gave a bit of relief to everyone who was waiting outside while those in charge went through their checks and made sure everyone was accounted for on their lists. Mercy Ships has never had to do a full evacuation in all the years they've been sailing and docked in various ports around the world, but take it from me, they are prepared for the eventuality!
Meanwhile, about fifty patients went through another round of screening and tests with most of them being scheduled for a follow-up visit or for surgery. Some of them will need to take medicines before they can be operated on, while others, like a few of the babies, need to gain some weight before their procedures can be done. Imagine that - being told you have to gain weight! There were a few who were told that, unfortunately, their condition was not treatable with surgery. One woman's tumor was only visible from the outside, on the side of her face; however, further tests showed the doctors that it had grown into her brain. She was gently led to the awaiting vehicle to go home. I hope she didn't feel alone in the world, as certainly there were a lot of hearts that walked away with her.
We also got to spend time with Ali Chandra, nurse extraordinaire. She is just about the most amazing person I've ever met. She has been on the ship since 2008, and seen many different patients over the years. But this was her first screening as a mom. She told me it was remarkably different. Having her baby, Zoe, helped her to more fully understand what a parent feels even when their baby just gets a scratch and a cold, let alone a debilitating and possibly untreatable condition. She and her husband and baby will be spending the fall in the U.K. where he will get additional training as an electrician. I asked if she was ready to deal with the abrupt weather change - and while it's something she's thought about, she says it'll all work out. She doesn't worry about things like that, while this afternoon I humbly repacked the pair of shoes I'd sneaked into the suitcase but never wore while in Congo.
From the States, I got a note about making sure to meet Chris Sayon if I could. Chris is a young woman from Liberia. She was a vaginal fistula repair patient a few years ago, and her life was on the line. Unspeakable things had been done to her. Doctors here operated on her and when I found her in the Linen Department, we shared a hug. She asked me to thank those that saved and changed her life. On behalf of those doctors, Chris, I can assure you that you are very welcome indeed.
I've been asked what has been my favorite moment, deepest impression, biggest surprise. And I don't really have an answer for any of those questions, at least not yet. I need to let my thoughts settle. But as we get ready to disembark and start the long journey back to Manhattan, some thoughts:
After 15 years of marriage, traveling together on an adventure that includes mercy and grace can really restore the resolve to making a relationship work. I'm very grateful to Peter as a loving person, especially to me. He dove right into the photography and videography and brought the story to life. Plus he charmed all the ladies with his stories and had the guys rolling with his jokes. Well done and thank you, Mr. Petah!
Grace and kindness are actually at the root of humanity, and yet it is disorienting to be on a ship for so many days and never hear a cross word spoken, or eyes rolled (my specialty), or even a word of gossip here and there. I felt like we were just waiting for a shoe to drop, for something to break the quiet calm of the crew. And yet nothing did. Here you have all of these people from all over the world, working together on a joint assignment to restore hope to the forgotten poor. I marvel at their stoicism and how much FUN they have.
What a community. For example, the ship's finance director, John Wall, is expecting a baby with his wife who is back in the States during her pregnancy. He won't be able to join her until around November. He had not heard what the sex of the child was, but Ali had heard from John's wife that morning and it was revealed if the baby would be a boy or a girl. Folks gathered around during ice cream Thursdays (before watching The Five), and a pinata of sorts was hoisted up to the ceiling. They made John turn around three times and then they pulled the string. Blue confetti rained down. Everyone cheered. Yeah, a son to join the two daughters they already have - what joy! What delight! Isn't it GREAT?! You could feel the happiness. It was a wonderful moment, though it seemed to me they have a lot of those on this ship.
And during all of that, the housekeepers and cooks and teachers and doctors and nurses and anesthetists, all were preparing for this Sunday when the patients with appointments will start arriving for their pre-ops. Some of them may never have seen a medical doctor, and if they had they'd been told there was nothing that could be done. But here they'll be, secure on this ship of mercy that is just, frankly, really hard to describe.
I'll be back on The Five next week - thanks for following and traveling with us.