As I get closer to boarding Mercy Ships on August 25, I want to introduce you to some of the amazing people who are already on board like Pediatric ICU Nurse, Ali Chandra. Born and raised in New Jersey, Ali’s adventurous spirit has served Mercy Ships, and her patients, well. Also, watch her in action when CBS rebroadcasts their profile of Mercy Ships on August 4th.
With all that is frustrating about the American healthcare system, it is still considered by many to be the best in the world. How and when did you decide to practice medicine on Mercy Ships instead of at an American hospital?
Ali Chandra: I first heard about Mercy Ships when I was in nursing school. I knew at that point that I wanted to use my nursing training to serve overseas somewhere. Mercy Ships seemed like a great fit. Initially, I only planned to stay for a year, but once I got here and started work, I knew that I'd be staying for much longer. The work here is so different from anything I think you'd ever get to be a part of in the States. There's a deep sense of gratitude that I feel from the patients and their families. These are people who have gone without so much, people who have endured hardships that I can't even begin to understand. I can't wrap my head around the fact that so many of them will see a doctor for the first time in their lives when they come through the line on screening day; access to healthcare is something I've never had to worry about. It's humbling to serve people who know that it's not something to be taken for granted.
What is the process for the assessment that will take place at the beginning of the mission - how do you decide who gets help first?
Ali Chandra: Before the ship even arrives in a port, we have a team on the ground spreading the word that we are on our way. Shortly after we dock, we hold a mass patient screening day where we look to fill a good portion of the schedule. Most of the ship's crew (both medical and non-medical) are present to make sure this day runs smoothly since we typically see thousands of patients. The surgery slots available in any given Field Service depend on the types of surgery we'll be performing and the medical staff who have volunteered to care for the patients before, during, and after surgery. At the big screening day, some patients are seen by surgeons and scheduled for surgery. Others are seen by nurses and given appointments to come back to the ship for further screening when other surgeons are on board. Some are also referred to the ship for further testing (biopsies, CT scans etc) before we make a decision. Unfortunately, many people who come to the screening day are not selected for surgery, most often because they don't have a condition that's treatable by a surgery we offer. Throughout the Field Service, we hold smaller screenings, both in the port city where the ship is docked and in the more remote regions of the country. We always try to get the patients with the greatest needs into the operating room first. If we have two patients, one with a tumor that's starting to cut off his airway and another with a cleft lip, we will operate on both. The patient with a blocked airway is in immediate danger and will be operated on first. It is constant triage for the ten months we are in port. There is always someone else showing up on the dock just when you thought the surgery schedule was full. Sometimes we have to say no; the need is just bigger than us. But we do everything we can to make sure we say yes to as many people as we possibly can.
If you have a favorite or most striking memory from your time onboard one of the Mercy Ships, could you describe it?
Ali Chandra: Oh my goodness, how could I pick just one?! Wasti's story is one of my favourites. He was the very last patient we operated on in Benin in 2009. We almost couldn't repair his cleft lip because he had a respiratory infection and a brain abnormality that meant that surgery would be very dangerous. After much debate, we decided to go ahead. You see, Wasti's mama was one of many wives, and Wasti's older sister had health problems, too. (Something was wrong with her eyes.) Between the costs for Wasti's sister and the cost of the journey to Cotonou, from where they lived way upcountry, Wasti's mama had had to sell everything she owned to pay for everything. This included selling the cow her husband had given her when they were married. Wasti's surgery went perfectly. Then, all the nurses got together and raised enough money for his mama to buy a new cow when she went home so that they would still be able to support themselves. There was just so much about that story that seemed so representative of everything that we do here.