#obsessed

About three weeks ago, my 2-year commitment with Mercy Ships came to an end. I boarded a plane and flew to the United States of America. Au revoir, ma belle Afrique, I said.

People told me moving home would be hard for reasons I couldn’t anticipate. Reverse culture shock, or some such state. I nodded and said thank you – but I’ve been home to visit in the last two years. No one need worry about me. I’m a pro at hopping across the Atlantic. I can live in a world with traffic laws one week and without them the next.  I’m versatile. I’m strong. I flawlessly be-bop between continents. Watch me fly.

So I completely deserved it when Mr. Culture Shock met me at the airport in New York and kicked me in the derrière.

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Let me tell you what it’s like.

Being disoriented by things in your native country comes in several stages. At first, it’s a honeymoon. Everything is cute and new. The apps are genius. The food is incredible. There is so much new music to download that you could cry. And the wine – oh my gosh, the wine.

After about six days of this, you will be doing laundry when you realize you don’t have a return ticket. Wait, what? I mean, you knew this, of course, but suddenly it’s real. You are here. Now you are a person who has a bathtub. “Home” isn’t 8,000 miles and seven time zones away anymore. Africa will feel real and far, recent but foreign.

For the next two weeks, you will still be doing laundry you will fall into a delightful pattern of alternating confusion and criticism. Why does everything cost so much? How are there stores dedicated to only selling cupcakes? Who are the Duggers? Why do they have so many children? Bitcoins?

Which brings us to Day 21. On this day you will finally want to write about it. Welcome.

Ultimately, I am grateful for the emotional side of coming home. These three weeks have revealed ways I’ve changed. They have been valuable for reflecting on the journey that brought me to today and the world I’ve come back home to live in.

That world is different in many ways. Actually, if there is one thing that has stood out to me more than anything else so far, it is how often I hear and see people use the word “obsessed.”

People in America seem to be #obsessed with a lot of things – photos of baby squirrels, new shoes, guacamole, a tiny rainbow seahorse, a new shade of lipstick. The tag has more than six million hits on Instagram. I am fascinated by this.

 

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Now, I appreciate hyperbole. I understand that the use of “obsessed” by my Millennial peers is intended to express love of something, it shouldn’t be taken literally, like: “I find my thoughts continually preoccupied with Game of Thrones to a troubling extent.” Right? (Although, as it is said in a favorite quote, “watch your words, for they become your actions…”)

In Africa, no one says they are obsessed. People profess love for each other, but I didn’t hear them professing love for their belongings. The Africans I know are made of experiences, not possessions. I want that for me and you. In Africa I saw that loving people fulfills you in ways loving objects cannot. This is one of those principles that is easy to know, but forgotten in practice.

What if we were obsessed with restoring sight to children blinded by congenital cataracts? Or ending poverty? Or educating girls in developing nations? Can you imagine a world where people are more obsessed with taking care of each other than taking selfies? That’s where I want to live.

In the last phase of culture shock, I guess the dust will settle and the little things will be forgotten. So here I am to write as much of it down as I can. Because really, this isn’t about taking issue with a trendy word, it’s about the lessons I want to remember and carry forward. 

So friends, please don’t let me forget it – and I promise I’ll try to do the same for you.

Happy International Nurses Day!

To be a nurse you have to be an all-around remarkable person.

I’ve seen our nurses at work in some of the most challenging scenarios imaginable, they leave me in awe. I’m happy that today, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birthday, we take the time to acknowledge and appreciate nurses around the world.  

I asked a few nurses here what being a nurse means to them. Our fabulous photographer Ruben Plomp put these images together. I’m glad I can share a glimpse of what nursing onboard the Africa Mercy looks like with you.

Mercy Ships relies on more than 700 volunteer nurses over the course of each 10-month field service. Without each and every one of them, we couldn’t do what we do. In fact, I think I’ll go down to the hospital right now and high-five as many as I can find.  

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Photos by Ruben Plomp

Marcel

Next time you have 4 minutes to spare, I’d love to tell you an incredible story about a fashion designer in Congo who once was blind.
(Happy Ending Alert: he isn’t anymore.)

Eyes of the Beholder on Medium.com

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

 

 

The Beauties of Ward B

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There are parties, and then there are parties.

On the Africa Mercy, no one does a party quite like Ward B.

You may remember that I’ve written before about VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) – a childbirth injury sustained in regions where emergency obstetric care is unavailable. A very rough description would be that, often after several days of labor, women develop a hole in their birth canal that leaks urine. In short, these women need C-sections and when they can’t have them the damage leaves them incontinent, if not dead. They almost always lose the child they were carrying from the trauma of the birth. There are approximately 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who live with VVF, according to the WHOTwo million.

When you are incontinent, you smell. When you smell, people avoid you. In several days’ time, these young women go from being expectant mothers to grieving, injured, and outcast. Over and over again I hear from VVF patients that they have been left by their husbands and rejected by their communities. In all my time in Africa, nothing has moved me as much as the plight of a woman with VVF. She has suffered in ways few of us will never understand. I think these women must be made of God’s strongest fabric.

After obstetric surgery, our VVF patients stay on Ward B for several weeks recovering. Do you know what happens when you place a bunch of women who have suffered for years in solitude together in the setting of a great big sleepover? While they rejoice over the fact that they’ve just won the healthcare lottery and will receive free surgery that will change their lives forever? Can you imagine this? Well, I’ll tell you: it is a non-stop musical hen party. They braid hair, do crafts, and parade in the hallway singing. I walked in a few days ago to find that they had pushed their beds together. Seriously. Like in The Parent Trap. Then they redecorated the entire ward. If we don’t leave soon there will be a sorority house where the hospital used to be.

When these incredible women are ready to be discharged, we throw a hell of a party. We call it a Dress Ceremony. With full hearts and dry skirts, the patients sing and dance and celebrate their re-entry to society and the emotional restoration they have found through the care and counseling of our amazing medical staff. It’s the happy ending after  a long road of suffering that began because they needed a doctor and didn’t have access to one.

This week, we celebrated the journeys of eight patients who no longer suffer with VVF. As I am writing a story about one of these patients, Gisele, I followed her day from start to finish. Gisele has lived with VVF for more than 20 years. When I saw her yesterday morning, she hugged me and said, “aujord’hui, c’est bon.” Today is good. And  it was. It was so good.

It is my great honor to introduce our debutantes, the Beauties of Ward B. 

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014


Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

 

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014; Gisele

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Thanks for reading.

Photography by Catherine Murphy
(+ nifty behind the scenes footage by Josh Callow)
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

Alfred: Before and After

I took the photo on the left when I met Alfred in Brazzaville at the beginning of November. He and I are almost exactly the same age.

How incredible that soon he won’t have to hide behind his scarf anymore.

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Top 10 Ways to Prep for Africa

Hmmm…planning a trip to this marvelous continent? I’ve been here long enough to have a few things down. Practice these and you’ll be a pro. 

1) Place yourself in a situation where you feel like you might be run over. Preferably one including goats on motorbikes.

2) Hold a baby who is not wearing a diaper. Feel the risk.

3) Be yelled at by someone who is not angry, but just tends to yell.

4) Refuse to pay the first price.

5) Trigger an impromptu dance party just by humming.

6) Sit in the sun and drink an orange Fanta from a glass bottle.

7) Decline a marriage proposal.

8) Drive a stick.

9) Play music from your phone on speaker. Walk around.
(*preferably Chop My
Money by PSquared)

10) Go ahead and cancel your return flight, because you won’t want to leave this place.

 

Have you spent time in Africa? What would you add to this list?

 

This is me trying to negotiate politely and speak French at the same time.

Photo by Ruben Plomp

 

 

Ravette: Before and After

Back around Thanksgiving I wrote a about Ravette – the little girl with the enormous smile who had surgery to correct her inverted knees. Well, now our little lady is out of her casts and done with her physical therapy. Not only do her knees bend the right way, but she could out-strut us all in a walk-off. Someone get this girl a runway.

Needless to say, Ravette’s before and after photos are orthopedic gold. Take a look:

Ravette

Ta-daaaaaaa!

Are you smiling at your computer screen like a total softie now? 

Ya me too.

 

 Photos by Josh Callow, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

the anatomy of a goodbye hug

On Monday we waved goodbye to Benjamine, a 12-year-old burn patient who has been on board for several months. It was beautifully bittersweet.

Benjamine has been our resident Miss Congeniality. For a while after her surgery she was in an airplane splint, which meant that both arms were stuck out to her sides. Did that hurt? Yes. Did she complain? Nope. Even though each day was Benjamine vs. Door Frame,  she always had a darling smile on her face. We are going to miss having her around.

I watched as some of the wonderful medical staff who cared for Benjamine said au revoir yesterday. 

These are their hugs.

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Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy

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The End. Thanks for reading.

Today’s photos are by yours truly.
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

For more updates from Africa: @clarkemurphy
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Winning Aicha

Today I want to tell you a story about a little girl. 

Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Once, when I was looking for Aicha, I found her hiding behind her father. Since the day she arrived on the ward, she had been upset. I thought I could lift her spirits. I assumed cheering up a four-year-old would be easy, but, as I approached, she gripped her father’s arm. She looked terrified. Aicha’s big brown eyes met mine, and they told me something sad – she did not want to be found. 

Aicha was burned in a house fire. Flames had licked the sides of her face, the backs of her arms, her thighs, shoulders, wrists, neck, and hips. Her right ear was missing. Because she went without proper wound treatment, the skin on her elbows, arms, and sides contracted. This caused her skin to regrow in such a way that her inner elbows became stuck to her forearms.

 Photo Credit: Mercy Ships. Screening Day

Aicha received surgery onboard the Africa Mercy to release her contractures and graft new skin, but her glassy eyes remained round and wary. This little body had endured a lot in its four years, including heartache. The fire that left her this way had also killed her mother. Underneath Aicha’s wounds was a child scarred by anxiety, grief, and an inconsolable fear.

From her hospital bed in the furthest corner of the ward, Aicha could see everything. Abdom, her father, sat on a stool at her bedside and smiled apologetically to people who sent her into tears just by glancing in their direction. Abdom could not leave Aicha’s side without sending her into hysterics. He was the only comfort she had left. During bandage changes, she called out for her mother.

Aicha was scared of everyone. It seemed like there was no remedy for her fear. She didn’t care for toys, or treats, or hugs. She wasn’t interested in playing games. To approach her with a smile could induce panic. We are professionals when it comes to winning the hearts of even the most stubborn kids, but Aicha was different. Aicha was heartbroken.

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Because Aicha’s recovery took several months, time was on our side. Slowly, she regained her mobility with rehabilitation exercises. Slowly, she became curious about the strange people in blue scrubs who brought her balloons and sat with her father. Sometimes these people in blue sang and danced. Sometimes they gathered in a circle by the door and bowed their heads. From her corner bed, Aicha watched.

When Aicha was well enough to go outside, she liked to sit on the deck in her father’s lap. Maybe it was just the sunshine, but she started to warm to us. Her grip on Abdom’s shirt loosened a little.

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There were days that involved dressing changes and bitter medicine (on those days, we lost some ground), but they were followed by days with little smiles. We took what we could get. Winning over a broken heart means victory comes in shattered pieces.

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Then came patience and love. Over those next few weeks, we loved Aicha until she asked to color. We waited until she smiled at our silly faces. We gave her space. We pretended not to notice when she took a little step away from her father’s side. We played it cool when she explored the ward on a scooter. Each time Aicha left the safety of her corner, there we were. We were safe, too.

Then came the day she fell into our arms. Winning Aicha was worth the wait.

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Today, Abdom no longer carries the burden of being his daughter’s only comfort. When he leaves for work, he knows she is alright in his absence. “You have set me free. You have given me my life back,” Abdom says.

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Now if I go looking for Aicha in the hospital, I know I won’t find her, and that’s okay. It’s not because she’s hiding – Aicha stopped doing that a while ago. It’s because she doesn’t need a hospital anymore. Today, Aicha is at home in Congo – hopeful, healed, and unafraid.

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Photos by Michelle Murrey and Debra Bell, Copyright Mercy Ships 2014.

Today’s story was made possible by some wonderful volunteers who helped Aicha (and me) along the way. Thanks, Josh Callow, Jasmine Bursey, Erin Williams, Chris Glasgow, and Deb Louden. 

it’s a girl!

The Mercy Ships family is growing 

 It's a GIRL!

In July 2017, the Africa Mercy is going to get a little sister. And by little, I mean a casual 570 foot-long by 95 ft. wide, 37,000-ton bundle of joy.

The new ship will have two hospital decks and it will be able to hold up to 950 people total when in port. 

What do you think we should name the Africa Mercy‘s sister ship? 

Doctors estimate that right now she is approximately the size of a check book, so next time you get yours out, please do think of us. 

To donate to Mercy Ships, click here. ;)

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