They come from far and wide, wearing large headscarves and balaclavas to hide their faces—and their shame. In West Africa, a disproportionate number of children and adults suffer from large, life-threatening facial tumors. Shunned by their communities, and sometimes by their own families, they have nowhere else to turn.
But onboard the Africa Mercy, a floating hospital docked off the coast of Conakry, Guinea, they find hope. Doctors and nurses provide life-changing maxillofacial operations, among other procedures, for these patients who would never be able to afford them. This past spring, five Trinity Western University School of Nursing alumni, including Brian Drebert (’06), served with Mercy Ships on the Africa Mercy.
Drebert’s own journey to the Africa Mercy began about 10 years ago, when, as a second-year nursing student, he visited a Mercy Ships booth at Missions Fest. “That’s when the idea really began to take root,” he says.
Fast-forward a decade and Drebert, who has spent the last 5 years as an Intensive Care Unit nurse at Vancouver General Hospital and Surrey Memorial Hospital, found himself dissatisfied with the direction his life was taking. “I knew I needed to do something drastic to change,” he remembers. “Overseas work had been on my mind but I had put it off. Eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t not go. I needed to.”
So in the summer of 2012, he completed the Mercy Ships application and started fundraising. The application part was easy. The fundraising was, well, less so. But Drebert persevered, setting up a website for donations, hosting a fundraising event, and, he says, “learning to trust that God would provide.” And God did provide.
For nearly three months, Drebert—along with Trudi Attema (’06), Hannah (Hoffman ’06) Calvert, Karin (Larson ’07) Benson, and Laura Ziulkowski (’05)—watched the transformation the Africa Mercy patients experienced. “When they come in, patients are initially closed off, withdrawn,” he said, “ But when they’re cared for as a person, not just an illness, a transformation takes place. They begin to come alive, as though the disfiguration isn’t even there.” Craving love and acceptance, they find it on the ward from the nurses and other patients.
But the experience isn’t just life-changing for those on the receiving end of the surgeries and care; the caregivers—surgeons, nurses, and support staff—are deeply affected, too. “Some days, I just wanted to head to my room and cry,” says Drebert, who initially didn’t feel equipped to do the work. Over time, his trust in God deepened. He was able to let go of his hesitation and freely serve.
Now back home, Drebert wants to integrate some of his experience into his work here. “The biggest challenge is to enter into my patients’ stories,” he says. “In Africa, much of the patient’s suffering was beyond just the physical. Healing was only possible by listening to their story, entering into their journey, and walking alongside them.”
“My heart is still there, but this is home,” he continues. “I’m feeling challenged to find the same meaning in life in Vancouver as I found in Africa.”
Read more about Drebert’s incredible experience serving on Mercy Ships on his tumblr.
Fellow alumna, Trudi Attema (’06), also blogged about her time on the Africa Mercy here.
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Written by: Wendy Delamont Lees