For some people, an extended stay on a massive ship might evoke thoughts of an exotic vacation cruise.
Not for Lindsey Briley, RN, who earlier this year volunteered in Africa on Mercy Ship, the floating hospital served by 400 volunteers from 33 countries. Anchored off the African coast at Pointe Noir, Congo, Briley experienced a multicultural world for two months beginning in January, before returning to her full-time job at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital (BHVH).
“It was such a unique situation,” Briley said. “When are you ever going to be with so many other people from other countries?”
Working eight-hour shifts and averaging at least 40 hours weekly, Briley called home a six-person cabin she shared with other women from the United States, Australia, England and the Netherlands. The Mercy Ship, which resembles a large cruise ship, has eight decks. The hospital is located on the third deck.
“I worked with patients I’d never worked with before – contracture burn patients,” Briley said.
Deeply scarred skin from a burn often means a contracture burn patient may not be able to move their arms, legs or other joints after the burn occurs. Eventually, the joints lock, causing permanent disability; so the Mercy Ship surgeons perform operations to open the joints and allow movement again. Many of the contracture burn patients were children burned by flames from open cooking fires or by boiling water.
“I worked with them after surgery, managing physical therapy, wound care and pain management,” she said.
Mercy Ship requires all volunteers to speak English, while the ship provides translators for patients. With four translators to every 20 patients, Briley got to know her patients well, even without a common language. When not working, she participated in other Mercy Ship opportunities, including volunteering at an onshore orphanage and at clinics for eye and dental patients.
Although the Mercy Ship focuses on providing surgical expertise and educational support to residents of the African continent, the ship is unequipped to treat viral epidemics, such as Ebola, President and Founder Don Stephens said in a news release.
“Multi-bed wards and limited isolation facilities, close proximity to crew accommodation and dining for families and children are but a few restraints,” Stephens said. “We also hire 200 day crew in each port as part of our training and capacity building for Africa.”
So Briley was not treating anyone believed to be infected with the deadly virus. But she learned about other nursing practices while working in the 50-bed floating hospital.
“Some had a more holistic view of nursing,” she said. “In the U.S., we seem more task-oriented, so we don’t always see the whole picture.”
Her stint on the Mercy Ship wasn’t Briley’s first mission trip. Through her church, she has traveled in Texas and nearby states to help rebuild homes.
Briley joined Baylor as a patient tech and then, through Baylor’s tuition reimbursement program, entered nursing school. Now, with six years’ nursing experience, she is one of the charge nurses on BHVH’s third floor. She’s also the chairperson for the clinical practice council for the Specialty Care Unit, BHVH. A grant from Baylor covered nearly all of her expenses to make the Mercy Ship trip.
Briley hasn’t signed up for another Mercy Ship volunteer trip, although she won’t rule out the possibility.
“My experience there was very eye-opening. I got to work with patients I’d never work with here,” she said. “I’m so thankful I got to do this. I learned so much from those patients and working with nurses and doctors from all over the world.”