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All aboard the Mercy Ships: see the world and save lives

Nurses from all over the world serve on Mercy Ships, so why not join them on their next mission?

Docked in Toamasina, on the east coast of Madagascar, the world’s largest floating hospital ship is home to hundreds of nurses delivering health care to the world’s fourth-largest island nation.

For nurses who don’t want to play it safe, Mercy Ships is a challenging, yet attractive proposition.

The charity has provided medical support and surgery to 2.9 million people over 37 years. Funded by charitable trusts, churches and schools, the faith-based organisation has operated in 53 developing nations where medical care is limited, including Guinea, Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. The ships go where they’re needed, creating a legacy by training locals.

Mercy Ships are staffed by nurses from many different countries

Children’s nurse Ella Glass gave up her job at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to join the 450-strong volunteer team. She spent four and a half months on an island where 90% of the population live on less than 75p per day, and free health care is non-existent.

‘I love the NHS but I knew nursing abroad was a possibility,’ she says. ‘It was the reason I got into nursing initially, but I wanted to work in the UK to hone my skillset before volunteering.’

She was impressed by the Mercy Ships model of care. ‘Many patients had visible physical deformities and as a result were ostracised in their communities. It was incredible to watch patients go through not only a physical but an emotional transformation. In the UK, there just isn’t enough time for patient-focused care.’

Ms Glass will soon take up a post as healthcare manager in South Sudan for an international aid organisation.

Laura Gaul took a year’s unpaid leave from her post at King’s College Hospital to volunteer for eight months on the Madagascar ship. King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust nursing director Geraldine Walters says: ‘We are supportive of clinical colleagues who wish to take unpaid leave to volunteer overseas. It can be mutually beneficial; enhancing clinician skills and opening up different ways of working. New ideas can be brought back to the trust to benefit patients here.’

Mercy Ship volunteers stretch themselves, says Ms Gaul. ‘I was responsible for dressings for patients who had facial surgery – something that was not part of my role in the UK.’

She is confident her expanded skills will benefit her career. ‘Communal living can be a struggle with 400 on board, as was sharing a cabin with several girls – but it taught me to cope with the unexpected.’

Apply three to six months in advance.

Stints range from two weeks to five years.

Applicants pay crew fees, insurance, transport and personal expenses. Volunteers must have 75% funding a month before they start.

Families welcome; 50 children live on board.

Mercy Ships have visited 451 ports in developing nations.

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For many volunteers, returning to the UK is a culture shock. Ms Gaul says it took her three months to readjust to the pace of an NHS ward. Now, she is struck by the good fortune of NHS staff and patients to be in a country where health care can be accessed by all. ‘It was frustrating seeing patients with tumours that could br easily treatable in the west, but are unable to pay for surgery,’ she says. ‘It is sobering to be reminded how privileged we are’.

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