Nothing and Everything

The other day, I came across some incredible numbers:

In 2014, Mercy Ships performed 2,527 surgeries in Congo.
Restored vision to 995 people.

Repaired 170 cleft lips.
Treated 8,358 dental patients.
Trained 73 Congolese healthcare professionals, including 6 surgeons.
Provided employment for 200+ translators.
Provided free rehabilitation care to 70 pediatric orthopedic patients.
Operated on 60 obstetric fistulas.

They also employed 1 familiar Houstonian and sent her back to Africa.

Ten months ago I was a girl who wrote to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Today I am a girl writing to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

The Africa Mercy was docked in Pointe Noire, Congo until June 2014. Originally, Mercy Ships’ country-next was Guinea – but due to the Ebola outbreak, Conakry was no longer an option. If any of you were reading this blog while we were there in 2012/2013, you might remember the brokenness of Guinea’s healthcare infrastructure. Long before a deadly virus showed up, hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed. And now? I can’t imagine. It may not make headlines anymore, but the impact of Ebola is still heavy in West Africa.

Next, plans were then made to sail to Cotonou, Benin, but again, the uncertainty around Ebola forced us to re-route in the Fall.

So, to make a long story short, tonight I am writing to you from Tamatave, Madagascar, where the ship has been since October. I am now working for Mercy Ships on their digital media team. I’m based in Houston, but happily traveling this month visiting the ship.

Being back on board is wonderful. It’s been a bit like coming home. Except that my house isn’t in the country where I left it, and, unlike last time I was here, now everyone speaks Malagasy. And drinks out of coconuts. And zips around on rickshas. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Somehow, through all of the ups and downs, uncertainty, fear, and fuzzy future – the remarkable crew here seems stronger. While pieces of our hearts are still in West Africa, volunteers onboard the Africa Mercy are already making an incredible impact in Tamatave.

If the stats from Congo are any indication, in Madagascar we have much to be excited for.

Photo Feb 12, 13 01 11

Here’s to many more stories in 2015!

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?

 

Catherine Clarke Murphy; Photographed in West Africa by Ruben Plomp

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

Photo by Ruben Plomp

 

 

Guaranteed Chills

In case you’ve forgotten, I’m in the Southern HemisphereSo while those of you in America are heading for a winter wonderland, we’re getting ready to have ourselves some summertime. But the really dandy thing about Texas and Africa is that seasons are irrelevant. It’s just hot.

However, some friends of mine in Australia shared the link to a trailer for the documentary they made on Mercy Ships. And guess what? Even while living under a glorious African sun, I got chills. It’s just that good. 

 If you are in Australia, be sure to lookout for The Surgery Ship in December. Also be sure to like The Surgery Ship on Facebook.

Congrats to Madeleine, Paul, Judd, and Eric + all at Media Stockade! We miss you guys.

The Really Neat Thing I’m Going To Brag About Whenever I Can

I am going to the end of the earth, do you know where that is?

Catherine Clarke Murphy; Congo

Tomorrow evening we will sail over the Equator at the very point where it intersects with the Prime Meridian.

In other words, the M/V Africa Mercy will pass through the coordinates (0.0°, 0.0°). If you are a geography major, a sailor, a pirate, have ever served in the Navy, or just know random facts about maritime stuff – then you already know that this is super cool. For this plottable accomplishment, I will even get a nautical title: “Royal Diamond Shellback.” After a ceremony tomorrow night, our entire crew will receive certificates to prove it, which I will promptly Instagram. And in the future, you can expect that I will casually find reasons to take it out of my purse at dinner parties.

Image Courtesy: http://homeworkhelp.stjohnssevenoaks.com/time/pm.gif 

For sailors who achieve this esteemed coordinatry, there is also a tradition of getting a tattoo of a sea turtle. Methinks I will not be doing that part on account of my disdain for needles and permanent decisions.

So, what happens when you arrive at the spot where the world begins and ends? Where both longitude and latitude are equal to zero? What will I find there? I expect one of the following:

1)    Time will stand still.

2)    There will be a giant vortex.

3)    Our satellite will miraculously pick up Shark Week

4)    The blue dot on my iPhone map will explode

5)    I’ll find a treasure chest full of all the sunglasses that I’ve ever lost at the beach.

6)    y will not equal mx+b

7)    Fireworks

8)    I’ll discover Gilligan’s Island – and on it I’ll run into Amelia Earhart chillin’ with Edward Snowden.

9)    I’ll witness something out of The Odyssey

10)  I’ll find the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815.*

11)  I’ll see a Narwhal

12)  Zero gravity

13)  Atlantis!

14)  My sense of direction will re-calibrate and I’ll never get lost ever again.

 *most importantly, Matthew Fox.

The possibilities are endless! Do you think this can go on my resume? My fingers are crossed for numbers 3, 8 and 14. At the very least, I could throw some vampires on that list and have a rough outline for a blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy trilogy. 

Stay tuned. 

(p.s. And one more really important thing – if you are in the USA, Mercy Ships will be on 60 Minutes tonight (Sunday)! Tune into CBS.)

Remember Me?

Well hello.

It’s 1 AM on a Sunday and I’m writing this on a flight from Miami to Madrid. The gentlemen to my right is snoring so loudly that I can barely put a thought together. Snoring in Spanish sounds the same as in English, by the way, so we can put that debate to rest.

Ok they’ve turned off the lights….and my bright computer screen is getting the stink eye from the rest of my row. Like I’m the one keeping everyone awake.

But none of this matters because what I came to write here is this: it’s time to go back to Africa.

Ready?

The above post is the most recent in a word document full of incomplete posts that I’ve never posted. Why? Because I am a lazy goose.

In my defense, when that plane landed in Madrid I de-boarded with my laptop full of lame blogging attempts and was politely informed that I’d missed my connecting flight.  And that all my bags had been lost in Miami. And that I would now be stranded for 24 hours. Thankfully, I happen to have a friend who lives in Madrid. 

A cab ride later, Keally was helping me pick out a toothbrush (red and orange – these decisions are hard when you are weary). And soon enough, we were sitting somewhere pretty on big white couches enjoying ceviche and sangria while Keally gracefully handled anything that had to do with being in Spanish. Then we went home and Snapchatted all of our friends from college like this roundez-vous was totally planned and discussed how old Robert Redford looks when he stands next to Demi Moore in An Indecent Proposal.

The moral of this story is never book a tight connection through a city if you don’t have an expat friend there with a cute apartment and an excellent DVR catalog.

So, see? No time to blog.

I made it to my destination, the Canary Islands, the following day and arrived home to the Africa Mercy. (My bags arrived a few days after that…)

Quick back-peddle for those of you who have forgotten…I live and work onboard a hospital ship in West Africa. Sometimes the ship needs maintenance or some such convenience of the Western world and we sail up to the Canaries (Spanish islands off the coast of northern-ish Africa). Now, all of the work is done and the hospital has some shiny new floors (among other fancy improvements) and as I write this we are sailing to Pointe Noire in The Republic of Congo.

Photo By: Debra Bell

Living on a boat is bizarre. First of all, there are whales and dolphins and sea turtles everywhere. The bridge regularly makes announcements like “attention crew, we have dolphins at the bow.” Or “Orcas. Port side.” Like nbd: there’s an Animal Planet marathon playing out there. It’s our third day at sea and already I am completely jaded by this. Shamu and Flipper could tango past my window and I wouldn’t be impressed.

Absolutely none of that last part was true. I wish I was the kind of person who was cool enough to be jaded, but I am not. Truth be told, I lost a shoe this afternoon running to see some whales. 

I digress.

CCM_dolphins

My time at home was sheer, queso-filled bliss. Now it’s time to get back to work. Mercy Ships is bound for West Africa again for another 10 months in the field. Congo, we’re getting nearer.

Ready?

Cyber Monday

Yours truly is now the happy curator of not one, but two online photo galleries!  

mustaches

 

The first, over on Red Bubble, is the professional (and still growing) portfolio. If the Red Bubble gallery was a real place, there would be jazz playing and Cricket would greet you at the door with a glass of chilled wine. La ti daa.

Will that be red or white?

 

My second cyber showroom is Instacanvas. Instacanvas is the somewhat-more-casual gallery that says “at least I’m not a Facebook album” and allows you to order from the selection of quality photos I have previously shared on my Instagram account. If my Instacanvas gallery was a real, physical, place, there would be no jazz or wine. Case in point, upon the completion of my Instacanvas portfolio, the website instructed me to share this banner with you:

INSTACANVAS_promo

Ho hum.

BUT none of that matters because BOTH companies do a great job framing up and packaging high quality photo products no matter their professional atmosphere – and since they aren’t real places, you can even shop in your PJs. I even test-ordered a few Instacanvas products myself and they were very nice (quick disclosure: according to my mom.) For now, I recommend starting on Instacanvas where the selection is bigger. Even more (non-square-cropped) prints will be up on Red Bubble soon.

The profits from these photos will go in my Africa piggybank and help me continue working here on this remarkable continent. :-) I hope you get a chance to shop!

Click Here for RedBubble

Click Here for Instacanvas

 If there is an image you don’t see but would like to order, send me an email at catherineclarkemurphy@gmail.com. :-) 

xx
CM

Do Guinea Pigs come from Guinea? and Other Pressing Questions

Recently when researching news for Guinea, I realized something quite lamentable, yet not surprising: people don’t know very much about this majestic green country. Allow me to enlighten you…

boats in Guinea

Guinea ranks 178 of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. It is not very well known in the developed world because while things here are bad, they aren’t quite bad enough. Despite corruption, stunning absence of healthcare and immense poverty, rarely will you find this nation of 11 million people on your nightly news. In the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies, NBC took a commercial break during Guinea’s entrance. By my rough estimate, approximately 1 American viewer was dismayed by this: me.

can you find me?

the blue dot can’t even find it.

 

This French-speaking Islamic nation shares borders with Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Guinea is right outside spotlight, hosting thousands of refugees from its neighbors’ civil wars while remaining above the rock bottom situation that would attract significant international attention and aid.

In the anticipation of upcoming elections, political tension in Guinea has mounted in 2013. Demonstrations in late February and early March turned tragically violent, resulting in the death of at least 8 civilians. If you are interested in learning more about Guinea’s current political climate, I encourage you to give it a Google while keeping in mind that those of us volunteering here are quite safe.

A frequently confusing aspect of Guinea (formerly French Guinea) is that elsewhere in the world you will find countries called Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea, it’s also in the Gulf of Guinea), Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, French Guiana and Papau New Guinea.  When I said my goodbyes I don’t doubt that there were at least a few intelligent people who thought I was bound for the South Pacific. It’s just that confusing.

 

"Where are we? Is this the right Guinea?"

“Where are we? Is this the right Guinea?”

 

By one explanation (which I can’t exactly prove, but I want to share nonetheless), in some version of old English the word ‘guinea’ meant ‘unknown land.’ In the early days of exploration, European voyagers sailed to and fro constantly pioneering, well, lots of unknown land.  Lack of creativity was one of the many shortfalls that befell these explorers (or at least those who survived the malaria, typhoid and yellow fever to arrive at a destination worth naming) – so they called everything Guinea. 

"Yep. This looks like the right one."

“Yep. This looks like the right one.”

 

Other people who know things about maps will tell you that all of this discombobulated guinea-ness has no exact explanation, but I like my version more. 

Photo courtesy Mercy Ships (Debra Bell)

This photo courtesy Mercy Ships (Debra Bell)

 

Guinea Pigs are not native to my Guinea. Nor are they related to pigs. (Disappointing, isn’t it?) To be honest, my research on this topic ended there because I had other things I needed to do. I can say with confidence, however, that the hashtag #Guinea will no doubt lead you to some pretty epic photos of Guinea Pigs, some in Halloween costumes.

This country I’m living in is quite good-looking, what with its myriad of islands, waterfalls, rolling green hills, jungles and pretty pink sunsets and all.

Catherine Clarke Murphy; Waterfalls at Diomaya

a west african sunset

CM Photos, Africa 2012 - 06

Flora and fauna aside, here are some quick facts about Guinea, courtesy Wikipedia:

DSCN1674

Capital: Conakry

Official Language: French

Vernacular Languages: Fulah, Malinke, Susu 

Ethnic Groups: 40% Fula, 30% Mandingo, 20% Susu, 10% Other

Government: Presidential Republic

President: Alpha Conde

Prime Minister: Mohamed Said Fofana

Independence from France: October 2, 1958

Area: 245,857 km2 (94,926 sq mi)

Population (July 2009 estimate): 10,057,975
(***more recent estimates I’ve seen are around 11 million)

 GDP (PPP) $11,464 billion ($1,082 per capita)

Currency: Guinea Francs. This is $50, which comes out to 360,000GF that only come in bills of 5,000. Yippee.

Currency: Guinea Francs. This is $50, which comes out to 360,000GF that only come in bills of 5,000. Yippee.

 

So there you have it: my current home sweet home. Thanks for reading!

Class is now dismissed.

Come Fly With Me

Did you know that Mercy Ships Global isn’t just based on a hospital ship? Did you know we have 16 national offices all over the world? 

Our South Africa office has organized an off-ship project called Mercy Vision that will begin at the end of this month. Mercy Vision will be held at a local hospital in Mthatha (hometown of Nelson Mandela, or so Wikipedia says) and will provide free cataract surgeries to hundreds of patients who otherwise would have had no access to treatment. Blind people are going to see again because of Mercy Vision.

 An awesome eye surgeon named Dr. Strauss, who hails from Tyler, TX, US of A, will travel there with from the ship to perform cataract surgeries AND to train local surgeons. Because the only thing better than healing patients is healing them while teaching local doctors how to go out and heal even more patients of their own. 

For the purpose of covering the program and generating written content for Mercy Ships, I am heading to South Africa in a few days to join the team of 10 that will be there. And while the anticipation of boarding an airplane always make me happy, that happiness is magnified greatly if the destination is South Africa’s beautiful Eastern Cape to watch blind people be healed and then write about it while simultaneously keeping an eye out for elephants.

 Making the trip even more of an adventure is the fact that I have a quick layover in Côte d’Ivoire, then Togo, followed by an overnight layover in Addis Ababa. In case you have not recently taken a look at a map of Africa, allow me to refresh your memory:

I spent way too long drawing that airplane.

I spent way too long drawing that airplane. (map: WorldAtlas.com)

 


Notice anything? Yep. It appears that from West Africa, Addis Ababa is in no way a convenient pit stop. Why am I flying by way of Ethiopia, then? Because this route was a better way than the only other alternative…which was via Frankfurt, Germany. (You don’t get a map for that one.) Luckily I am now used to the fact that on most days, nothing in Africa is easy, least of all traveling around it. As any parents would be, mine were just tickled to hear that their daughter would be cruising around the whole of sub-Saharan Africa for  two days. Please send them your prayers and blood pressure medication. Addis Ababa or bust. 

I look forward to spending this coming weekend in Africa in the most general sense. No place in particular, just the whole thing: Africa. Everywhere. Nowhere. I’ll happily be be-bopping over this glorious continent, requiring a horrifying amount of jet fuel while searching for people who speak English so I can find a place to re-charge my iPod in various airports. Then after Mercy Vision, I’ll retrace my steps back again to Guinea and sleep for a week.

So in the (likely) event that Internet/time is limited for the rest of this month, don’t you worry – I haven’t fallen off the map. I’m just on an airplane cruising around, somewhere high above it. 

See you in March!

p.s. Oui & oui, I am on Instagram/Twitter: @clarkemurphy 

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Woman on a Mission

I spend a lot of my time sitting next to hospital beds with a translator, listening to patients’ voices echo in and out of English. Every story is unique, of course, but sometimes I hear one that makes me go “WHAT! No way. Can you ask her again? Are you sure that’s what she said?” And my kind, sweet, amazing translator laughs and has to remind me that she is, in fact, fluent in 14 languages (14!) and she is certain that she knows what the patient said, so if I could please sit back down we will carry on with the interview. Sorry, I say in a calmer whispery voice, I just get so excited over patients who have these incredible life stories, which is, like, every single one. There are not enough hours in the day.

Binta traveled from a tiny village in the farthest region of the country to our hospital for surgery. Binta had (note the past tense) VVF. Unless you are familiar with women’s health in developing nations, I don’t expect that you would know what VVF is – I certainly didn’t. VVF (vesicovaginal fistula) is a devastating condition caused in childbirth when women who need C-sections don’t have them. There are 100,000 new cases of VVF in Sub-Saharan Africa each year.

Here is the story I wrote about Binta:

What could possibly compel a poor woman in West Africa to travel over 1000 kilometers – a journey that would take six months and exhaust all of her resources and ingenuity – to get to a hospital ship? The answer is stark in its simplicity – the journey was born out of a desperate, fragile hope that she could find healing and restoration.

Binta lives in southeast Guinea. Six months ago, a man in her village told her about news he had heard on the radio – a hospital ship was coming to the nation’s capital, Conakry. “The ship has doctors that can help you,” the man said.

Binta is in her late thirties and has suffered from vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a devastating childbirth injury, since she was a teenager. During several days of prolonged, obstructed labor, Binta’s baby was stillborn during a traumatizing delivery. The injury to her birth canal made Binta incontinent; she has been continuously leaking urine for years. Her condition made her an outcast within her own remote village. But now there was news that she could be “fixed” and she dared to hope.

With the little money she had, Binta set out on her journey.

She traveled from her village in the dense rainforest region to the city of Senko. Once there, she used what little money she had to pay for transportation to the next city – Beyla. It was her first time to ever ride in a car.

Image

From Beyla to Nzerekore to Macenta to Gueckedou to Kissidougou to Conakry – a blur of new sights and sounds. She stopped when she had to, staying in one city for up to two months where she worked doing laundry to save enough money for the next leg of her journey. She paid people with cars or motorbikes to give her a lift. Binta traveled more than 661 miles (1063 km) in 6 months to seek help from Mercy Ships.

Finally, she arrived on the dock – with no money and only the clothes on her back. “It was something inside of me that told me, ‘Do it!’” Binta said. The Africa Mercy is the first ship she has ever seen.

Image

Last week, Mercy Ships volunteer surgeon Dr. Steve Arrowsmith repaired Binta’s fistula. Today she is dry. She no longer leaks urine; she no longer smells. And now, Binta longs to return home to her sister’s children, triplets, whom she has cared for since her sister passed away in 2011. Because there are no phones there, Binta hasn’t spoken with her family since she left. Fortunately, she will get home to them soon – a much simpler journey this time, with assistance from Mercy Ships.

And Binta will return home with a dry skirt, a full heart and a new life. 

2:45 a.m.

When the loudspeaker in your bedroom harks an emergency alarm at 2:45 a.m., paging all EMT to the hospital, it is incredibly hard to fall back asleep. A fellow crew member captured it best in her blog post today – so I am going to paste her account here. Thank you, Krissy – I couldn’t have said it better myself.

– – –

“Emergency medical team, report to A Ward immediately. Emergency medical team, report to A Ward immediately.” 

16 simple words, yet so much impact.

Our entire crew was awakened last night by that overhead page, piped into all cabins, at 2:45am.  Immediately I heard my roommate rustling around, the door closing behind her just a few seconds later. Her footsteps faded as she hurried down the stairs outside our door, quickly followed by many other pairs of feet, leading to A Ward.

As I waited for the adrenaline surge at this announcement to fade, I laid in my bed and prayed a prayer echoed by hundreds of others the same time, from their beds.  God, please be with the Emergency Medical Team.  Please be with whatever patient is in distress.  Please guide the doctors, nurses, and caregivers to best handle the crisis.

When there’s a page like that at 2:45 in the morning, you know it must be very serious.  As we are a floating hospital, there are always Ward nurses on duty and doctors on call, all hours.  Most problems are easily handled by those highly capable people.  In fact, this was the first EMT overhead page we’ve heard since I have been here; there was one while I was on board in Sierra Leone.

But while I was praying I was also reflecting on the fact that because of this incredible community that is a hospital, every single other Crew Member lying awake in their beds, or soothing their crying babies, or lovingly encouraging their children to go back to sleep; every one of them was praying the same prayers I was.  In that sleepy, confused, adrenaline-laden time, we were all united, under the same banner and purpose and calling.  For that, I am grateful.

The prayers were felt; the patient was rushed back into surgery, and is doing very well today.  All of the nurses, Emergency Team members, doctors, even the Receptionist who made the overhead page, worked in their calm confidence of their calling, knowledge, training, and trust in each other.

I am continually amazed by the incredible community of people I get to live and work with here on the Africa Mercy.  Thank you, EMT, the Surgical Staff who jumped in to their scrubs ready to work at 2:45 this morning, and thank you to everyone who prayed for this patient.  It makes a difference.

Krissy”

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