By Matt Skoufalos
In eight years touring the world with the non-governmental Mercy Ships, OR nurse Missy Brown has been to countries as far-flung as Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone, Congo and Madagascar.
Brown traces her interest in medical mission work to a childhood during which she accompanied her physician father and nurse mother on several trips to Haiti. The climate was far different from that of her home in a small suburb of Fort Wayne, Indiana, but it left a lasting impression. Whether looking through the windows of a local household or sitting in while her father consulted on a medical procedure there, being immersed in a foreign culture from a very young age seemed natural, and each trip became more personally significant, Brown said.
By the time of her final trip to Haiti, Brown was 16, and knew that she wanted to pursue a career in nursing. On that last visit, she left with more of an understanding about the broader local impact her family was having in the community, and it all fell together in her mind. Nursing is purposeful in and of itself, but nursing that elevates the standard of care in areas of the world where it is needed the most is an entirely different thing.
Brown took that impulse with her into her senior year of high school, where a health occupations education program also afforded her a glimpse into life in the operating room. From the time she saw her first surgery, Brown said she knew she’d found her niché. In the scant months between finishing high school and starting nursing school, she volunteered in the OR as often as possible, and was able to put enough experience under her belt in a summer to land work as an OR technician. It was a job Brown worked throughout the two-and-a-half years she spent earning her degree. Within three years, she’d passed her boards, launching a career that has spanned 22 years to date.
Five years into it, Brown learned about Mercy Ships, which she said offered the opportunity to reconcile her interest in helping communities of need while continuing in the OR.
“I thought, ‘Oh, someday, I’m going to serve with them,’ ” she said. “And it wasn’t until 2009 that it was my first time to serve short-term. I didn’t know anyone, but I knew how to be an OR nurse.”
Mercy Ships targets six different surgical specialties, all of which are focused on restoring function or dignity to patients in the developing world. Pediatric plastic surgery patients are commonly recipients of burn contraction releases or skin grafts, she said. In places where families cook over an open fire or on a charcoal stove, young children can stumble into a bad burn that can lead to a lifetime of debilitation. When health care isn’t readily accessible, or is too expensive to obtain, families suffer for years from a lack of quality treatment. Corrective procedures can enable a child to develop the ability to provide for his or her family, or to go to school for the first time without social consequences, Brown said. The same work has comparable meaning for ophthalmological patients; typically, seniors who may be dependent on children to navigate through the world.
“That child is not able to go to school because they’re needed at home,” Brown said. “Removing cataracts restores sight. That person can now provide for themselves, and they’re not dependent on their family to care for them. It changes the whole family.”
The Mercy Ships maxillofacial program helps patients overcome facial tumors that they may have carried for years. Obstetric patients whose fistulae are corrected also go through a dress ceremony, in which each patient is given a new dress to celebrate their chance at a new life free of discomfort.
“It’s such a huge realm,” Brown said. “There are so many opportunities. I love being able to directly help the surgeons; correcting a problem, helping people. I like hands-on nursing.”
The crew on Mercy Ships is multinational; although English is the common language, its 400-member crew hails from 35-plus different nations. It’s a seafaring organization, traveling from country to country on a converted Danish rail ferry, The Africa Mercy. Mercy Ships is also a faith-based organization, which Brown said allows her to live in a community that brings first-world medical care to third-world environments. The mix of factors gives her a sense of purpose and common cause at the same time.
“I feel like we uphold our standards of practice from AORN, and we are able to do just as good of surgeries here at the highest standard of care,” Brown said. “I could be challenged and even learn and grow more here and learn from others. Everyone’s coming with the same purpose: I want to serve God with my professional abilities.”
Brown said that her experiences have taught her that serving with Mercy Ships is “the most rewarding thing that you could do in your career.” Surgeons who check their egos – and their paychecks – at the door allow the crew to “fully focus on others, whether it’s your own team members or the local people you’re working with,” she said.
“It’s so much more about relationships, or working with each other for the good of someone else who doesn’t have access to care,” Brown said. “I love the different specialties. I love having a smaller team where you become a family.”