"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Our kids ashore in Benin

Harry dancing at patient Naomi's discharge celebration 

One of the reservations I had about joining Mercy Ships, was how it would affect our 3 children.  I mean, what is it like to grow up on a ship, that changes location every few months, with kids from around the world as your classmates, remote from your extended family?  And how does this change you for the rest of your life?

We actually said when we started this journey, that if our children return home with more compassion and understanding of other peoples, then it will have been all worthwhile.  Well, in Benin, we were fortunate to see just that.

Firstly, Harry befriended a patient from Nigeria, Naomi.  At 15 years of age, Naomi's legs were bent and would not straighten.  She had been in a wheelchair for a number of years and came to the ship to be operated on by Dr Frank Haydon.  She then underwent 8 months of intensive physiotherapy to get her walking again.  She even walked down the gangway!  After patients have worked so hard, it is wonderful to celebrate their healing with them in a dance party.  Harry wanted to be part of Naomi's celebration and so he invited his teacher and classmate along.  They all chalked their hair and danced the morning away.  It was a huge blessing to see him so excited to be part of her healing and wanting others to share the joy.
Harry & I with Naomi and her Mum, Evelyn
The hair chalking pose

We also continued visiting the HOPE (Hospital OutPatient Extension) Centre in Benin for Sunday church services.  The services are always full of music, drumming and energy - plus you get to watch the patients' transformation in a regular fortnightly basis.  What changed this year, is how much more comfortable our boys were with the patients.
Mark's Jenga buddy (& Dad) at the Hope Centre

Jenga is a game that crosses all language barriers - Mark had some epic battles where the blocks resembled the Leaning tower of Pisa - yet still didn't fall.  Everyone sitting in the immediate vicinity was holding their breath when it finally toppled. He loved going back and other boys would find the Jenga blocks when they saw him arrive.

Jack really enjoyed going to the HOPE Centre and making cardboard ships with the patients.  He preferred to have a purpose in the visit - and this proved a great one.  He enjoys teaching and is a patient instructor.

What is really interesting about all of this, is how happy the younger patients are when they see our kids.  Our kids have become happy to break down barriers of language and culture with a game - Jenga, UNO, even thumb wrestling - it helps everyone to feel at ease.  And whilst they do this, they have realised that they are making someone's rehab, someone's waiting on results or someones' pain a little easier to manage.

We don't know how our time onboard this ship will affect our boys for the rest of their lives.  However, we know that one thing that they will take away from these years is a greater level of compassion and understanding of other's pain - and a lack of fear of those who look different to them or have experienced a life far more arduous that their own.  And that for us, is totally worthwhile.

Smiles say it all
Working together to build a mini ship - Friendship

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A little girl called Gifty

Gifty - before
I don't get little girls.  I have spent the majority of my working life surrounded by men and, Mick and I have three boys of our own. I get boys. I understand them and how they tick. I like how they are loud, energetic and messy.  In fact, despite the fact that many of my relatives and friends have little girls - I have only ever changed one girls nappy (diaper).  So - I'm not used to little girls and I rarely connect with them as patients.

However, sometimes they connect with you.  Rewind three months to January, when we started back in our routine of visiting the HOPE Centre every second Sunday for the patients' church service.  Going to the HOPE Centre is a way for our family to see the Mercy Ships mission unfold before our eyes.  Patients who live far away, come to stay before being admitted to the hospital.  We see the befores.  Some of them are quite confronting to see - especially for our boys.  Of course, once you sit with the patients, sing with them, play games with them - you don't see the "confronting" at all - you see the person.  
Then later on, we see the afters when they are discharged from the hospital.  It is easy when you've seen the afters, to forget about the befores - such is the radical change for so many of our patients.

 Gifty in D Ward with Joyce - her incredibly strong albino Mama
So this is how we came to know Gifty - she sat on us at a service one Sunday.  She decided that Mick and I needed to be sitting differently and proceeded to rearrange us as she saw fit.  She climbed all over us - putting our arms on each others shoulders and my head against Mick's.  I felt like a piece of plasticine.  And all of this was done without talking - as Gifty had a very large cleft in the middle of her face.  Essentially, she had no nose or top lip shape.  However, what she was missing in facial features, she made up for in personality.  So that is how we became friends.

Gifty, and her mum, Joyce are from Liberia in West Africa.  They both speak English as well as their mother tongue.  It's always wonderful to be able to communicate with patients - but even easier when you are not using a second language to do so.

Wanting a photo of her "Ship Mum"
We followed Gifty into the hospital for her very complex surgery.  She had her cleft lip and palette repair, had a nose created and also some cranial manipulation around her eyes.  It was a massive operation for a little 5 year old.  And she was not very happy in hospital. She wanted to go back and play in the HOPE Centre again as soon as possible.  But first, she needed to rest.  This gave Joyce and I a chance to get to know each other during visiting hours.  We played a lot of UNO of course and some other games as well. Actually, it was easy to know when Gifty was starting to feel less pain - she wanted to join in and slither of her personality began to resurface, albeit for short periods of time.

Much improved writing
Finally, she was allowed to leave the hospital and return to the HOPE Centre - visiting Outpatients frequently to get her wound checked out and for any other issues.  And so the waiting begins.

Hospital waiting is dead boring in Australia.  People sit there for hours - staring out the window.  We really are at the mercy of medical professionals - as they decide the best course of action for our loved ones.  I have really come to appreciate that it is so not different on the ship - the patient is discussed with all facets of the medical community - all away from their home, their windows, in air conditioning and waiting.  How boring is that?
Always time to play

In the HOPE Centre, they have activities like singing, board games and craft.  There is a big group of people, united as they undergo a similar experience in physical transformation. Often this includes therapy - physical therapy to get seized joints working again or learning to do something for the first time.  For Gifty, once her physical wounds were beginning to heal, it was time to get working on speech therapy.  We don't have a speech therapist on the ship - mainly because our cleft lip and palette patients tend to be either adults who need no motivation to work on speaking correctly or babies - who if corrected early enough, won't have any speech issues.  Of course, there are always a few kids that fall into the gap like Gifty.  Which means they can already talk fine, thanks and they don't want to work on doing something that is hard when they could be playing with friends elsewhere. Then throw into the mix, Dieticians, who take on the task of speech therapy with a good guide; and some willing volunteers and you get the idea of how it works.

So how do you make talking fun?  With bubbles of course.  With straws. With funny noises.  With 
colouring in.  And with learning letters and numbers.  So that is how Gifty, Joyce and I really got to know each other. And wow did she improve.  She became really careful in tracing her letters, rather than just making lots of colours all over the page.  She was getting louder when she was talking, as opposed to whispering in my ear.  And she was back to her normal self, running me to greet with a big hug and taking my hand, ready to learn.

And just like that, I've changed.  A little girl has stolen my heart.  Joyce asked for my photo one day, so she can show her family at home, who Gifty's ship Mum was - it took me a moment to realise that she meant me. I'm no longer a Mum who sees herself as very much a Mum of boys - I have had the privilege of sharing the joy of the gift that is little "Gifty".