UC Davis nurse Katie Wolf is still getting her land legs after two months on the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest nongovernmental hospital boat. She returned May 4 from her anchored position off the coast of Madagascar, where she cared for the third-world nation’s most dire patients, some of whom had never received medical attention.
The Africa Mercy, a 16,000-ton former rail ferry operated by nonprofit Mercy Ships, typically docks for six to 10 months to offer free, complex surgical care to the people ashore. About 400 volunteers from as many as 40 countries staff the ship at any given time, providing care while also training local physicians.
The organization serves nations that have little access to health care, said Dr. Peter Linz, chief international medical officer for Mercy Ships. Whereas the U.S. has 25 to 30 doctors per 100,000 people, many African nations have only one, he said. That’s what makes the ship, and the supplies and staff it brings with it, so crucial.
During a typical service mission, a Mercy Ships crew will perform 2,500 surgeries – facial reconstruction, fistula repair and orthopedic procedures are among the most common – and pull somewhere around 10,000 teeth.
Wolf, 33, joined the Africa Mercy crew in March, taking a short leave from her job as a registered nurse with the UC Davis Medical Center’s burn unit. She sat down recently to talk about language barriers, cabin fever and readjusting to life in east Sacramento.
Q: Between orphanage work in Zimbabwe and Guatemala and clinic work in Bolivia, you’re no stranger to long flights. How did that come about?
A: I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and then once I became a nurse, to be able to use that career overseas was really neat to me. What intrigued me about Mercy Ships is it’s a fully run hospital – you have a lot of equipment, you have a lot of medications. It’s a lot of what I get to do here, over there.
I am a Christian, and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing how God’s heart breaks when people are broken and poor. So much that you see is diseases of poverty.
Q: In August, you were scheduled to join a Mercy Ships crew in Benin in West Africa, but the service was canceled due to a possible Ebola case. Months later, your own hospital became a designated Ebola treatment center, and you took part in the preparedness efforts. Would you have considered going overseas to provide care during the outbreak if given the chance?
A: Had I been signed up with an Ebola team, I wouldn’t have been opposed. I enjoy the risk. I think that’s part of why I became a nurse, because there’s always those risks out there. When that came up, I decided to not be scared and to take more education and learn more about Ebola. For me, it was just a decision of, I’m a nurse, and I have risks even at UC Davis in Sacramento, and that’s why we learn to protect ourselves.
Q: You said you had a much heavier patient load and more limited resources on the ship than you do in Sacramento. What did you learn on this trip that you’ll bring back to UCD?
A: In the ward, there were 15 patients at a time with five nurses and five translators. There were people on the guitar and singing, and kids running around. It was a very different environment for me. I had to calculate my antibiotics and draw them up and mix them. It was just a stretch for me as a nurse, to need to focus on something, but also learn an art of nursing where I am appreciating and valuing the relationships of the Malagasy people. ... Just challenging my mind to see that I can function differently, and to bring that back to the burn unit is huge.
Q: Working in the oral and facial ward, you said you saw a lot of patients with physical obstructions that had long been neglected, such as large dental tumors or cleft palates. What is life like for them after surgery?
A: When you have a pimple and it feels like the end of the world, imagine missing a nose or having a tumor that’s out to there (gestures to a point several inches from her face). A lot of our patients lose their families, or their spouses will leave them. They are outcasts from society, so this gives them confidence. It brings them a huge healing, not just the physical aspect but their soul as well. ... When they have that healing, they finally feel like they can enter society again.
Q: Even on top of the jet lag, you must have a lot going on right now. How do you readjust to your old life?
A: I’ve done the reverse culture shock thing before, of coming to the U.S. and feeling like this is crazy. For me, it’s always reminding myself that these are two beautiful cultures that are different. There are good things about both of them. For me, knowing that God is present in both and working in both helps. But I never want to forget what I see.
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