Humanitarian Adventure Fosters a Habit of Giving
Tara discovered Mercy Ships in 2001 while participating in a Youth With A Mission program in Hawaii. At the time, she hadn’t yet decided what her post-high school education plans would be, but she remembers already being charmed by the concept of the hospital ship and thinking that one day she might be able to get involved. A seed had been sown.
In the end, it was the nursing field of study that suited her, and she specialized in the operating room. In 2012, while at work, she came across an anesthetist who shared her experience on board the Africa Mercy. Tara jumped at the chance to riddle her with questions to better understand the inner workings of the organization and see if she could fit in. After many answers and encouragement, Tara applied and flew off to Sierra Leone to serve for three weeks.
Her first experience was a memorable one. Tara says that even after her long days, she would choose to stay later to observe the surgeries since there was so much to learn professionally. “I fell in love with the patients, the ship, the culture, this unique place where you pay to serve!” While this all sounds like the world turned upside down, it’s worth noting that one of the unique features is that Canadian volunteers help raise funds for Mercy Ships Caada to serve on board. These funds enable the mission to continue in the field. It’s a bold business model, but one that’s worked for 45 years.
The following year Tara even dared to commit for six months to serve on board as a nurse in the operating room. This leap into the “void” brought a few fears from those around her, as she would have no income during this period, but Tara was convinced and convincing! This six-month experience enabled her to really get to grips with the rich local culture, and to participate in the onboard community outside her role as nurse. Following this experience, she came back on board, on average for four weeks annually to join the onboard community and serve on the reconstructive plastic surgery team until the pandemic hit.
A caring workplace
When Tara talks about her volunteer work, she’s quick to point out how grateful she is to her colleagues at the Alberta Children’s Hospital for allowing her to go away for a few weeks each year. She has also opted for a part-time position, which gives her more flexibility to participate in humanitarian projects. While she tries to do a little extra work before and after her departure, she has her “family” of colleagues who offer to cover a few shifts while she’s away. “It makes my schedule a little busier before and after I volunteer, but it’s worth it!”
A mixture of incomprehension and admiration
Tara’s involvement brings its share of incomprehension as well as admiration as people see her taking time off, to go “to work” as a nurse. It inspires a different paradigm, one in which financial motivation is not the primary focus, but rather the gift of self. It’s also a form of resourcing for Tara.“People can easily be blazed by the reality around them, and when we take a step out of it, there’s another world that opens up to us. Stepping out of my reality, and back into it, is better for me mentally and I think could benefit many others.”
It’s the encounters with patients that also motivate the volunteer to return and see more lives transformed. Patients like Haby, a young girl with extensive burns; her hands, elbow, chest and chin were severely contracted, and she couldn’t close her mouth. “On arrival, she was this petite shell of a child, she seemed ashamed and hid behind her mother.” Following her surgery and her long recovery, Tara could see the little girl go through a transition just by looking at her eyes. They went from elusive and fearful to live-filled and hopeful. The more care and love she received from the team, the more she became a playful, mobile little girl! As Tara mentions, “Even if we can’t completely heal them physically, it seems like the patients have an inner transformation that brings them new life.”
Medical volunteers come fully trained and equip to serve Mercy Ships’ patients, but many see an opportunity to also grow in their competencies. As Tara says, “my experience has been transformative, both personally and professionally. Collaborating with international colleagues and embracing diverse perspectives has broadened my understanding of nursing, while relying on my own knowledge and expertise has empowered me to make critical decisions with confidence. Working on the ship has taught me the importance of adaptability, resilience, and taking ownership of my nursing practice. As I continue my journey as a nurse, I carry the invaluable lessons learned from my time on the ship, forever grateful for the opportunity.”
On her second mission, Tara had the privilege of collaborating with a surgeon from South Africa, Dr. Tertius Venter, with whom she has developed a special bond and coordinates her presence on board to be part of his team whenever possible.
Dr. Venter says: “When I think about Tara a picture comes to mind of someone filled with energy, joy, a radiant smile, always ready to help. Someone who shows kindness, sympathy. Just a joy to work with her. This might sound just ‘too much’, but it’s true!”
In 2023, Tara had the opportunity to serve as a nurse for the first field service of the Global Mercy in Senegal and could, yet again, work alongside Dr. Venter to bring hope and healing to so many patients who gained a new lease on life.