Healing and hope

When Yanan Wei came to Australia to study nursing, treating patients on a ship off the Senegalese coast wasn’t on her career to-do list. But she got a taste for medical volunteering during her degree and now plans to dedicate her career to global health.

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, acute care nurse Yanan wanted to do something meaningful outside of her work. An ad for Mercy Ships popped up on her social media feed one day and, before she knew it, she had applied to volunteer on a floating hospital.

It was a twist of fate that, in February 2022, took Yanan halfway around the world to Africa’s western-most nation of Senegal and reinforced her dream of working in global health.

“When I read about Mercy Ships, I was amazed by how many free surgical services they had provided to African countries since 1978,” she said. “But they don’t only deliver life-changing surgical and medical care, they also help build health capacity in local communities.”

Mercy Ships is an international development organisation that sends independent hospital ships and volunteer medical staff to the world’s poorest nations. Volunteers conduct free surgeries, train local doctors, and help develop medical infrastructure to ensure improved healthcare outcomes.

Each year, more than 1,300 medical and non-medical volunteers pay their own way for the chance to serve others.

Yanan, who graduated from a Bachelor of Nursing at Australian Catholic University (ACU), jumped at the chance to use her knowledge and skills to help people in need.

“I’m always interested in doing medical volunteer programs globally, and I had never been to Africa before so, to me, this was a great opportunity and there was no reason to say no.”

Caring days

Yanan took annual leave from her job as a registered nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and relocated to the Africa Mercy docked off Dakar.

For two months, the ACU nursing graduate worked as a ward nurse, caring for her patients before and after surgery. Most were women who needed obstetric fistula or general gynaecology surgeries.

“Obstetric fistula (OBF) is an abnormal opening between a woman’s vagina and either her bladder or rectum,” explained Yanan. “It’s a debilitating condition that renders women incontinent. Generally, it’s a result of prolonged, obstructed labour without timely medical care.”

An estimated 500,000 women suffer from untreated fistula worldwide with new cases occurring annually, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It affects women in low-income countries who have little to no access to emergency obstetric care.

In many developing cultures, a woman’s role is to provide sexual satisfaction for her husband, produce children and do much of the hard work of everyday life. Unfortunately, the spectrum of injuries from OBF and the constant odour destroys their ability to perform any of these roles.

As a result, most women affected by OBF are more likely to be rejected by their husbands and their community due to their childlessness, odour and belief that women with OBF are cursed. They work alone, eat alone, and are not allowed to cook for anyone else. Sometimes, they sleep in separate huts and often end up on the streets, begging for their survival.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming

Yanan enjoyed her time on the ship, but some experiences were bittersweet.

“All of the patients I met have warm hearts and beautiful souls and are super good at dancing and singing,” she said. “But unfortunately, not all surgeries are successful. Depending on the size and complexity of the fistula, success rates with each subsequent repair decrease substantially.

“One of my patients, for example, still had a pinhole fistula after her surgery. She needed to stay in the hospital for more than six weeks due to a complex wound in her surgical site. However, she is one of the most resilient and optimistic people I have ever seen in my life. During the time in hospital, she was always cheerful and helped the nurses and day crew to look after other patients.

“On my last shift, my team leader told me this patient may be able to be discharged to the HOPE Centre, an onshore out-patient centre, the next week. I wish I could have stayed longer to celebrate her dress ceremony with her.”

In Mercy Ships, each woman is honoured with a ceremony before being discharged. They wear a dress made specially for them, get their makeup done, and celebrate their new lives with everyone on the ship.

Saying goodbye to her patients was Yanan’s biggest challenge.

“We built a strong rapport with our patients and their family on Mercy Ships. Every day, we provided a lot of love and support; we were always playing with them and dancing together on Deck 7 of the ship and in the corridors.

“I became particularly close with one of the patients and her daughter. When they were discharged, I couldn’t say goodbye to them face to face due to shiftwork and COVID-19 restrictions. This broke my heart, and it was the only time I cried on the ship.”

A wider perspective

Medical volunteering isn’t for everyone, but Yanan possesses a blend of curiosity and compassion that make it right for her.

She first volunteered abroad in 2016, on a two-week health promotion program in Cambodia with Challenges Abroad Australia. Together with 15 other ACU students, she delivered health education to primary school students and the local community and did a placement in the local clinic.

After returning to Australia, she developed a great interest in intensive-care nursing and, two years after graduating from ACU, volunteered with SMURD: Romania’s largest emergency rescue service.

“It was incredible to work with local nurses and doctors and look after non-English-speaking patients,” she said. “It was interesting to see how the Romanian healthcare system works, and how hard local health professionals work every shift. I felt fortunate to be able to study and live in Australia and work as a nurse in a hospital here.”

Yanan attributes her drive to volunteer to the cross-cultural experiences she had as an international student and the different perspectives she developed in that time.

“My studies in Australia cultivated my sense of respect for diversity and minorities. I believe and uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And when I was studying at ACU, I learned the importance of the pursuit of knowledge, the dignity of the human person and the common good.

“So, whenever I have time, I like to use my knowledge and skills to help people in need. My dream is to work for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières; MSF) and help those affected by armed conflict, epidemics, healthcare exclusion, and natural or man-made disasters.

“My overseas experiences have given me the opportunity to help others, obtain fulfilment, and experience cultures and perspectives while creating lasting bonds.”

She plans to study a Master of Public Health next year, specialising in primary health care and infectious disease, to achieve her dream of working with MSF. And her volunteering days are far from over.

“I would love to continue volunteering both nationally and internationally, and I would be honoured to work with Mercy Ships again. The world’s largest hospital ship, the Global Mercy, will be on mission next year and I look forward to working with fabulous colleagues to bring healing and hope to people in need.”

Keen to have a career making a difference?
Learn more about studying nursing at ACU.

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