On this episode of The Disciple-Making Parent, I have a captivating conversation with my daughter Bekah Bettis, a nurse serving with Mercy Ships in Sierra Leone. Join us as we explore the incredible work of Mercy Ships in providing essential surgical care to those in need. Discover how Mercy Ships collaborates with local healthcare professionals and government ministries to address the specific healthcare needs of the community. Be inspired by Bekah’s personal journey and her commitment to training and empowering local healthcare workers. Don’t miss this eye-opening discussion on the impact of Mercy Ships and their mission to bring hope and healing to the world.
Resources From This Podcast
Topics Covered In This Week’s Podcast
05:15 A bit about Bekah and how she joined Mercy Ships
11:08 The ministry of Mercy Ships
15:44 How Mercy Ships partners with countries to meet needs effectively
32:52 Maintaining a ministry focused on Christ and eternity
39:07 Everyday life on the Ship
45:17 Stories of God at work
Chap: I’m Chap Bettis, and you’re listening to The Disciple-Making Parent, where we seek to equip parents and churches to pass the gospel to their children. Would you like to know what God is up to around the world? How is an international team of Christians taking the gospel hope to some of the poorest in the world?
Hi, my name is Chap Bettis, and I’m the author of The Disciple-Making Parent, and today’s podcast is a special treat for me. If you ever want to know what drives the podcast and how I decide what to post, it’s very simple. I post what interests me. Usually that focuses around Christian parenting apologetics. That’s our sweet spot. But sometimes I reach out to well-known names to discuss a topic, and sometimes not-so-well-known names. Well, today fits into that latter category.
We’re going to hear from a young woman who’s been serving as a nurse for several months with Mercy Ships. And if you’re like me, you’ve seen the ads. But in our cynical age, or maybe it’s just my cynical self, I wonder, is it really true? What if I could find out firsthand what’s going on? Well, I have, and you will, because we’re going to listen to this eyewitness on-the-ground report, and it comes from someone I know well: from my daughter, Bekah. In our time together, we talk about what this ministry of Mercy Ships is like, how they integrate really well with the country, the huge need, and the great work the ministry is doing. And we’ll end up hearing some personal stories that have affected Bekah.
You know, I don’t often mention my family, and there’s some reasons for that. First, my kids’ walk with Christ is their own. I don’t ever want to give the impression that I’m showing off how we did it right. The problem is, with Instagram today, everybody is a performer, and I never want to be that or have my children feel that pressure. Sharon and I made plenty of mistakes. Any good things that have come from our parenting is all by grace, and all the glory goes to Christ. And every good parent will tell you, man, it is all by grace when they see grace in their children.
But this interview is a good reminder for us as parents that we want to not only raise disciples, but disciple-makers. We want to raise, if possible, by God’s grace, young men and women who stand like Daniel and Esther in our own morally confused country and who take the gospel, who want to spread the gospel in our country and to the nations. So let this interview with Bekah encourage you to aim high and maybe check out Mercy Ships for yourself.
Before we start though, I wanted to let you know that I send out the family discipleship email every Saturday during the school year. Are you on that list? It’s my way of helping parents and grandparents and pastors equip the next generation. I’m regularly amazed at how many of my podcast listeners don’t know about that family discipleship email. I promise not to spam you. Once a week I’ll give you some help to pass the gospel to your children or grandchildren. So you can head on over to thedisciplemakingparent.com and sign up today. And in addition, we give away the audio book of The Disciple-Making Parent absolutely free. We’re on a mission to equip parents and grandparents. The book’s been endorsed by Al Mohler and Tim Challies. It’s the premier book on discipling your children. So simply visit our website at thedisciplemakingparent.com and the pop-up will allow you to sign up for our newsletter and to get the free audio book. But for now, let’s think about how God is at work around the world.
So it’s my privilege to have a very special guest on The Disciple-Making Parent Podcast today. She is a young woman who’s a nurse a quarter of the way around the globe, and I happen to know her very well. It’s my daughter, Rebekah Bettis. So, welcome. So, Bekah, it’s great to have you on the Disciple-Making Parent Podcast.
Rebekah Bettis: Thanks, Dad. I’m glad to be here.
Chap: Well, this is a special treat. So Rebekah is working with Mercy Ships and has just been there a few months. And as I have gotten to know about the ministry there, I’ve been very impressed. And I just thought that it deserved for more people to know about it. And so I hope that at the end of this podcast, you’ll be encouraged and maybe even challenged.
So Bekah, why don’t you start just by telling us a little bit about yourself your background, your journey, and then where you are now.
Rebekah: So my name is Bekah. I am the third-born of your children out of four. Um. I currently I’ve been working as a pediatric nurse for the last seven years. I grew up in Rhode Island and went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, and worked as a nurse there for a few years before the Lord, I really feel like, directed me back to New England. And where I was in Boston in the crazy year of 2020, and then I worked at Boston Children’s for the last three years which was wonderful. I’m 28. I am currently located in Sierra Leone, West Africa. That’s a little bit about me.
Chap: Well, you’ve always had a sympathetic heart, a heart for missions. So we took you on missions trips as a kid. Previous to this, you had another short term mission trip as a nurse to Africa. And so, this has kind of been in your blood. You’ve had an interest in world health.
Rebekah: Yeah, I would say this interest probably started as a kid. It was actually one of my brothers who reminded me when I was leaving that, “Oh yeah, you talked about this since you were a kid,” and I was like, “Really?” It’s just amazing, I think, how those things develop over time and how the Lord often works things out on our behalf in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily plan for ourselves, but are really good. And so I kind of saw myself as an arts and theater kid in high school, but I think some of those mission trips that we took, just getting outside of my own bubble seeing the more of the world and seeing how people lived and were suffering, it made me want to do nursing and do it globally.
And so when I graduated nursing school, I saw a lot of people go off and do mission strips through their early teens, late teens, early twenties. And at that time had actually felt more like the Lord was calling me, grounding me to the local church and to be like present there and to learn more about that. And I was really convicted- if you want to do any kind of ministry in other cultures, you need to be able to learn how to do it in your own. And I’m glad for that because I think that convinced me and made me realize the importance of the local church and that as being really this Church, big C church, being the center for the kingdom of God.
And so, obviously, as someone who grew up in a Christian home and as a pastor’s kid, that’s not necessarily something I was aware of, but I became convicted of it personally in my mid-twenties. And so some of those short term trips I took- I went to Mexico a few times, and Uganda, but I knew I needed just more time to hone my skills as a nurse and to really learn a little bit more. And so really just seeing God’s providence in my work that I did at Boston Children’s, I was working in many different specialties over those three years and it gave me a lot of the experience and the surgical experience to actually be a beneficial here in the ship and what Mercy Ships does.
And so I think I saw that God’s providence and how, yes, this had always been a desire, but I had always asked God, “Please tell me when, where, how. I just know I want to go, but I don’t know what that looks like.” And so when I felt like God was leading me home in 2020, I was really confused/wasn’t sure I wanted to move back to cold New England. And yet, I saw completely looking back just God’s providence and all of that got connected with an amazing church in this last year that was able to send me fully with full support and encouragement and supports me while I’m here and also just recognizing that those last few years were what I needed to be able to be helpful here.
In the last year, I think that’s when things became more peaceful and that’s when this desire resurfaced and I started re-researching. I had Googled “international medical organizations faith-based” for the last few years. And so I’d seen Mercy Ships pop up probably, I don’t know, maybe five years ago on Google. I looked into the organization, but it just wasn’t the right time. And so over the last few years, just once in a while, I would Google that and look into different things. And Mercy Ships just kind of rose to the top as one that seemed very established and reputable, excellent, faith-based, and just boasted of a lot of things that seemed really in-line with how I believe faith-based medical work should be done.
In the summer I took the leap and applied and left in October for Sierra Leone. I’m here on the Global Mercy, which is one of two ships serving in Africa. And I will be here as of now until mid-April.
Chap: Well, we’re going to keep going talking about the Mercy Ships. There’s a little branch there where I felt like we could have talked about the “dark secrets” of the Bettis family and I thought you were going to launch into that. That might be worth another podcast at some point- to get all the kids on to talk about what was life really like. But let’s keep moving forward here. Talk about the Mercy Ships. This is all new to me as of six months ago. I think I was familiar with the ministry, but what is Mercy Ships and why is it needed?
Rebekah: Mercy Ships is very nuanced and meets a very specific gap, and that is the need for surgical care globally. Statistically there are 5 billion people globally who lack access to safe and affordable, timely surgery. And so what really surprised me when I actually came here, I knew that, but what I didn’t know was worldwide, if you combined HIV, malaria and TB, the amount of people that die from that, the lack of access to safe surgery kills more people than all of those combined. And so I knew there was a need for healthcare and accessible safe surgery, but that completely blew me away, that it’s a lot more than infectious type diseases that we think of when we think of countries that are maybe third world or don’t have access to timely, affordable, safe health care. And so that’s where Mercy Ships meets this need.
Chap: And to be clear, it’s two ships, right? That dock at the port of a country. And I think one of the misconceptions I had was this idea that you kind of go in quickly for a month and then move on. But that’s not true, right?
Rebekah: It’s not true. So it stays at each country for ten months. Sometimes it will return back but really two months of the year it’s doing repairs and then ten months it’s in a port of a country really settling into that country. And so the reason it’s a ship- I had this discussion with someone the other day, why not just like start a hospital in whatever country you’re going to? Why not use these resources and this money to establish hospitals?
The unique thing, the gap that Mercy Ship fills is that it is actually able to go into the coastal cities, and it is proven that over 50 percent of the world’s population is within accessible distance to coastal areas, or they live in coastal cities. 50 percent of the world’s population. And if you’re from the U. S. or from another country, you’re like, Wow, that seems like a lot. But you think of densely-packed countries that have a lot of islands and things like that. Specifically on the continent of Africa, a lot of the population is towards the coast and so is able to meet that need uniquely.
So essentially how that functions is it is kind of announced ahead of time they’re going to a country. They have people on the ground there working with Mercy Ships, helping work with the doctors there to screen people to say whether or not this need can be met, whether we can do surgery, and there are all sorts of criteria. It’s not an automatic yes. You know, in Sierra Leone, I think it was over 8,000 people applied and we’re only doing about 2,500 surgeries while we’re here if that, possibly not even that much. Maybe less. And so it’s not an automatic, yes. And then once the ship arrives we’re able to kind of launch into surgeries and really for that full 10 months and we have the capability of up to in the Global Mercy, which is the larger ship to do six OR’s, although staffing-wise when you’re staffing two ships, I think they’re currently working on trying to build enough staff to maintain those. It’s not always possible, but it has that capacity right now.
The other ship- so the Global Mercy is in Sierra Leone right now and then the other ship just landed in Madagascar on the southern west coast of Africa and the ship is smaller. It’s called the Africa Mercy. The Global Mercy, the one I’m on, is two and a half times larger than that ship and was built specifically for the needs of Mercy Ships. Although it’s wonderful, actually some ports are too small and can’t hold this ship. And so a smaller boat like the Africa Mercy allows it to be able to go into other countries that the Global Mercy ship can’t.
Chap: That’s helpful. Well, I want to take this conversation all different ways. First, just talk about poverty. For example, you told me Sierra Leone- do I remember this right?- has two surgeons for every 100,000 people and two dentists, or is it one surgeon? So part of what you’re providing is service for people who just need basic surgery that we take for granted here in the West.
So we could talk about that, but then also, I’ve been very impressed with how you have sought to strengthen the local healthcare workers. Let’s just talk about that, because then there’s some other things I want to talk about.
Rebekah: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions that even I held when I was younger of just like, “Oh, we’re from the West coming to help other people.” And it’s going to be well-intentioned, but it is very, very lacking in the full context of who you’re going to serve, what are the needs, and are you really helping or are you hurting? And there are a lot of good books, podcasts, articles, where people have thought through this. And it is discussed and it’s important, especially in the evangelical world.
And so I was very convicted early on in my first couple of medical mission trips that I went on when it was done well. I was part of trips that were done well. Not well in the sense of being aware of like when you have people going to another country to quote-unquote “serve”- are you actually assessing what the needs are?
In medicine when you first approach someone that comes in’s complaints, you’re assessing. What are the needs? What’s their baseline? What’s their normal? What’s out of the ordinary? What are the symptoms we’re seeing? What’s unusual? And so, you know, you have to assess before you can do any interventions because if you don’t know what’s really going on, you’re going to do the wrong thing for the patient. You’re going to harm them rather than help them. And so in the same way when you’re going into a country, you need to know, what is the mission, what am I doing in this mission, in this organization? And what are the needs of this country? How are we going to truly help them? What are the objectives? How are we going to work together? What is their baseline, what’s their normal, what are their goals?
And so what I really appreciate with Mercy Ships- and they boast of this- but I’ve been very impressed because it’s really true. They go to every country before actually arriving on the ship, and they have liaisons, they have physicians, they have people on the ground who have lived and worked in that country, they’ve established relationships and say, based off of the Ministry of Health sitting down and saying, What are your goals for your country? How can we support you and help with that? What would be things that would take away from your country? What would things that would add to your country, to your people?
So for instance, one of the things is years ago, Mercy Ships came to Sierra Leone and helped establish a gynecological program at a hospital to help with women’s health. There are a lot of issues specifically around fistulas, which caused a whole ton of issues and Mercy Ships would do hundreds of just those surgeries in some of these countries. So they established a hospital. So, when we’ve come back, the hospital’s established within the last 10, 20 years, so we don’t do any of those surgeries in this country because that is not the need that they have here, now.
And so that is just one of the things I’ve been very impressed with, I really agree with, is going in and saying, What are your needs? And they do that ahead of time. And they talk with the ministries of health present. They’re having very important conversations within the country’s government as well as also physicians on the ground saying, What do you need, and what do your people need? I know there’s more than that I could say.
Chap: Yeah, I’m just getting choked up as you say that because I feel like the attack is that Westerners come in and because of superior wealth just come in and don’t ask questions and just sort of overrun the local people. And I think that’s true for Christian and non-Christian. Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And so sometimes you’re just like, Yeah, I feel good about giving. Doesn’t really matter if it helped somebody on the other side, it looked good for the moment. Um, so that’s true for Christian and non-Christian: helping can hurt.
And yet what you’re saying is there’s been real strategic honoring of what is already happening there to improve to improve their health. And then I believe you said another time we were talking that there are two dentists now like for the whole of Sierra Leone, but when you leave, there will be six. So you’re not just coming in and performing surgeries that need immediate care and then pulling up the gangplank and walking away. You’re actually helping strengthen that country there to treat themselves.
Rebekah: So one of the things that I love about this organization is that it has a program called ETA: Education, Training, and Advocacy. And what it does is essentially train the people who are interested in progressing in their health care for the community. So this can look like bringing on resident doctors as part of the surgeons specifically to train them. There are no maxillofacial surgeons in this country.
Chap: Translate that for the layperson.
Rebekah: What that means is for people who have a mass or a tumor that is on the face or the neck, there is no way that they can have surgery on that in their own country. So they either have to travel to Liberia, to Guinea, somewhere nearby to have that done, or they will never have it, if they can even possibly afford it. As of now, from what I understand- again, this is, this is more of my understanding, this is not necessarily representative of Mercy Ship’s true statistics, so this is my understanding of it- but there are two general surgeons, I believe, and two anesthetists in the country. And I’m not sure exactly how many dentists, but I think it’s less than five. Very few. In the whole country. And so you’re talking about an entire nation- for Americans, it’s about the size of South Carolina- that only has a few people who are working as much as they can to provide the best care they can for their countrymen, but just don’t have the manpower to do it.
And so even this year so far- we’ve been in Sierra Leone since August- I believe they’ve had two people come through the program, two resident surgeons who are specializing in either maxillofacial or something else. We are also training either five or six students and dental students in I believe Guinea right now learning French and so that they’re in their program. So training up six more dentists to serve their country. It’s really incredible. And then, like today, we have several nurses from local hospitals that are coming just to see how we do things. It’s knowledge sharing. They’re not students. They’re full-fledged working nurses, but it’s more of them. The nurse I was talking to today works in a surgical specialty. And so we’re just sharing about, oh, like, What’s new? What are you noticing that’s different? How do you practice in your country? And so on and so forth. The culture is very much of a humble, let’s sit down and have a conversation.
We have tons of people come on board all the time from all over. And so it’s very normal to be like getting coffee and be like, Oh, you’re a nurse who works here in Sierra Leone. Tell me, so let’s sit down and just tell me about your experience, or whatever like that. So there’s a lot of going out to the community, but there’s also a lot of inviting in to the ship. In Sierra Leone, some of our physicians here have created a surgical program where they brought a bunch of hospital leadership from the local hospitals together and basically talked about what was going well and what wasn’t going well within their surgical programs and created a streamlined process that they can now implement for safe surgeries at their hospitals.
Again, there are a lot of assumptions and it’s hard when you’re getting a picture, just hearing, when you haven’t gone somewhere and you’re just trying to get a picture of what is it really like? I think we’re serving, there’s a lot of poverty in Sierra Leone. It is a country that went through a terrible civil war for 10 years and is really trying to reconstruct. And so you think about a baby, a country like that’s emerging from such a tender place where they remember neighbors on neighbors, hurting and killing one another, literally. And their nation is really working towards restoration. It’s an unbelievable mindset of Let’s rebuild. Let’s come together. It truly is. And the way people talk is a new cultural mindset. And I’ve been very, very impressed.
But you have to understand, there is so much poverty. There are just buildings that have been completely halted that don’t have any funding to be built anymore. You have lots of poverty. You have slums everywhere. Freetown is very big. It’s very widespread. They’re not all tall buildings, but I don’t even know how big it is, but it’s over hills on hills on hills. It’s just huge. And there are people who come in for surgery who are from five hours away and live in a very small village and have never encountered expats before. But you also might have people who have lived in five countries, speak nine languages and who have lived in Boston, Massachusetts, who are coming back to their homeland saying, I want to come and rebuild this place and make it better for my children. And those are also the people we’re treating. You have a range. And so I think it’s like easy to assume when you’re interacting with people that they might have come from a lower socioeconomic place maybe not educated, but that’s absolutely not true because I’ve had some wonderful conversations with people who are so much smarter than me and have lived a lot of life. It’s just a lot of assumptions I think are made and built. And when you’re working one-on-one, it’s very, very different.
Chap: Just to add to this, because, again I was very impressed with this: Mercy Ships hires or brings on board local pastors as chaplains. Do I have that right?
Rebekah: Oh, I love talking about this. Oh my goodness. Okay. This is one of my favorite parts of this because this is where the faith integration part comes in. Because we can do healthcare all day long and we can strive to do it as best we can as healthcare professionals from a place of compassion, from a place of just really wanting the best for people. But this is where faith integrates. If it is without Christ, it is only temporary and there’s no eternal value. We are getting rid of tumors, but if there’s no hope for eternity. . . We’re all going to die at some point, and if the mindset is just Be a good person, do the best you can, I send good vibes, good karma to you, and there are no roots, and there’s no eternal, there’s nothing more than that. . .
Why it’s important to me as a person, as a nurse, to integrate faith is to say: One, I’m motivated to do this because I’m a selfish person, a prideful person, and this comes from more love than I have personally. It is really is the Holy Spirit living in me. But also it comes from a place of, I want to love you and I want you to know the love of Christ from the love that I share with you. I appreciate that- and as I believe organizations should do that are faith-based- there should be no pushing or like you have to believe this or accept this to receive basic human decency, access to safe, affordable, excellent healthcare. No one ever should be having to believe a certain way or do a certain thing to accept that. That’s something I believe. But also to say, hey, we are an organization that loves and follows Jesus and that is going to be integrated in what we do and how we do it. I want to make you aware. We are aware that you’re a Muslim stepping onto this ship and it is a Christian environment, but we also want to honor your religion and respect you as a person. And so those conversations are had very blatantly.
Also in this culture, I think that’s very different from specifically the United States and even in some, probably from what I’m understanding, European countries or Australia is just that Christians and Muslims and live very closely together. In the U. S. where we have a lot of agnostics of people who just don’t really believe in God or believe in any kind of religion. Here, it’s very much. . . the spiritual realm is very obvious here. People very much do believe in God and evil and good forces and whatever you want to name that. People really are a lot of Christians or a lot of Muslims are not a lot of people who just don’t believe in God because you see it the spiritual realm in a different way in this country, in West Africa, than you would in the U.S.
And so what I love about the ship is that they hire on- well, we are volunteers. Everyone who comes from other countries for the most part are volunteers. They do contract some things, but that’s a nuance just to keep things up. But the chaplains on the ship act as we would in other hospitals, as social workers would, where they are helping with their home, any social things that are going on, other family members that are sick, divorce, family problems, house issues, like housing instability, relational instability, student instability, things like that.
So like helping pay for their rides back and forth to the hospital if they can’t afford transportation. We had a situation where we found out that the caretaker for some of the children while the mom was here had abandoned the children. And so they were able to send someone out with food, with money, to go to that home. And the chaplain was making sure that there were people taking care of the kids, that money was getting to them, that they had food, and that they were being taken care of. And that was one of our staff.
And so their local pastors, their teachers, their social workers, their principals, their children’s homes or orphanages. People who run those places are some of the most giving, wonderful people, and they’re working sometimes second or third jobs here on the ship as chaplains/social workers. What that means day-to-day is they come by and offer a prayer for those who want it. They really do; there’s a lot of singing in this culture, so they’ll just randomly start singing. It just happens all the time and. And they are there for the hard conversations, to break the hard news. Because like anything in healthcare, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, it does not all go the way you expect. There are things that don’t work out. There are hard no’s. There are sicknesses right before you’re having surgery. There’s a lot of hard situations and so they’re there to bridge the spiritual gap, but also the cultural gap.
They’re also facilitating between a ship that has a lot of Europeans and Western expats, and being able to facilitate some of those cultural differences in a way that people in this country can really understand and be heard. I just love them. I know them very well. They’re just the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. I just love them so much.
Chap: Well, let’s springboard off that and address really my concern that I told you as you left here. I think that there are a number of mercy ministries who drift away from speaking of Christ. They were sort of doing good things, and that is helpful. There’s certainly enough suffering in the world, but as John Piper says, “We exist to relieve suffering: temporary, temporal suffering and eternal suffering.” And so just as you said, if we don’t tell them about Christ. . . So talk a little bit about how you’ve seen this ministry is staying focused. You can talk about the chaplains or things you’ve seen or also even just the Christian environment on the ship.
Rebekah: I think the best way to describe it is: the mission of Mercy Ships is to bring hope and healing. And the way that it’s done is they say, quote unquote, “through the following the 2,000 year model of Jesus,” which is showing compassion. I’m sure they could break it down, but that’s a simple idea of it. And they say it.
Chap: You’re not you’re not an official spokesman for them.
Rebekah: Oh, I’m not.
Chap: You’ve only been in the ship a few months. I just want to interview my daughter. That’s what’s happening here. So go ahead. We’re not going to hold you to this. Go ahead.
Rebekah: Like I said, I think what’s really important is, as healthcare is done is not ever forcing someone to believe something in order to receive good treatment as a human being.
And I really appreciate that they are like. We are not changing who we are as we run as a faith-based organization, but everyone is welcome. And so, in terms of, from the leadership down and just how the community is, it is very faith-filled. There’s a lot of prayer there are church services that are offered on Sundays, there are community gatherings and meetings that are often filled with scripture and led with prayer, we have worship events and things like that. I’ve had quite a few friends here that are not Christians, and so they have really enjoyed in the mission and the work that’s being done. Some of them have really said that the spiritual life has really challenged them and made them think a little bit more about their own spiritual journeys. And others said, This is a way too hyper spiritual Christian environment for me. I like the work, but it’s just a lot.
And so, I completely understand where they would come from. It’s almost more than I expected. And in some ways it really functions in a relational way, kind of almost like a church body would, and it feels like that in a sense because the majority of people here are followers of Jesus. But it also is the environment where I appreciate people, especially like the short-term volunteers. You don’t have to be Christian I think when you’re talking about Christians, it can be almost like kind of a stereotype or you immediately think of kind of this ideal of a person. But I think the beauty of it is just that there are people who are professionals in what they’re doing, coming as they are, and who are following Jesus. It’s never looking the same way twice.
You know, I really love how the desire for seeking unity doing things with excellency and integrity, those things, and seeing people as humans worthy of dignity and best treatment and compassion is done in pretty much every way. So whether that’s a conversation with HR or whether that’s in the hospital, how you’re treating and working through improving policies or whether you’re looking at the surgical schedule and trying to figure out based off of staffing issues how many surgeries, like if we’re going have to alter surgeries being done, or just whatever it might look like. Those are the standards. Those are the things that are still staying at the top. And it’s obvious to everyone working here. People just have conversations about it. It’s evidence when there are crises we had- there was a military coup in or a prison break and a coup in November 26th here- and even how our leadership on board, whether it was the captain of the ship and the operating director and hospital director, how they all just led with integrity, with excellence, with awareness. They were very open and just very much putting Christ and putting faith in front in how we’re going to handle the situation.
That’s what makes it incredibly unique when you think of it from a business perspective in that sense. And so that’s more life on the ship. And then there are plenty of opportunities just in terms of ministering to our patients. Whether that be offering prayer, or just opportunities for conversations. I think as a nurse, as a professional, you try to think about where are my boundaries and what is helpful and what is maybe not helpful. And so there are times when I can offer prayer or to speak into something, but oftentimes, especially when you think about from a cultural standpoint, I will engage with chaplaincy and say, Hey, I’m seeing, sensing some things here. Will you ask more questions and speak into this? And that might be more appropriate than me directly speaking.
So, I know that there have been patients who have decided to follow Jesus from their experiences here with chaplains who have been able to lead them to the Lord. And I think that could be appropriate for some nurses or others to do, but I think it’s most appropriate if you have Sierra Leonean chaplains who are pastors and engage the community doing that and then connecting them with local churches and stuff like that.
Chap: That’s great. I’m saving the best for last, believe it or not, with the stories, but I want, I want to give just a few-sentence taste of life on board. When we think of missionaries, we think of going out into the bush or something like going into the jungle. So you are living on a large cruise ship without the bars and without the swimming pool, right? Your swimming pool is pretty tiny and gross, you told me. Sorry, we shouldn’t put that online! But it’s a large ship with how many nationalities? The one thing you have changed is you start to sound like a Canadian at the end, you sort of go up at the end of a sentence sometimes.
So tell us about the nationalities and really that gets into people, volunteers, you can talk just a little bit about the volunteers. Don’t talk too much, because I want to end with the stories, but really it’s a floating city. You’re not doing some things because you don’t have enough staff. So besides doctors and nurses. You need office workers. You need people who cook and bake. There are people who keep the mechanics of the ship going. There are friends of mine who are actually teaching the families’ children. There’s a school on board, so if you’re a teacher and you wanted to come volunteer. So there’s really a place for you. It’s like a floating city in many ways. So talk just a little bit about life on board and then let’s transition and talk about how you’ve seen God at work. Some of the stories.
Rebekah: Yeah, it really is like a mini city. I will preface this with saying I have not been to the other ship and it is a lot smaller, but generally the same principles and the same ideas. It’s the same on both ships, it’s just a little bit bigger scale on the Global Mercy.
So the Global Mercy’s 12 decks. It does almost feel like a cruise ship, which is a bit odd but then when you’re living for months and months and months and months with the same people working, resting ministering, and you have the same six outfits, and you ran out of toothpaste, and no one has toothpaste. The box hasn’t come in with the dishwashing liquid and everyone’s using paper plates. Or you’re trying to put on a New Year’s party and you don’t have enough of the right balloons because you patched them together with tape because it’s all you could find at the local grocery store.
Yes, it’s a ship. It’s not a cruise ship. But this one is a little more updated than the other one, for sure. But still feels like you’re living simply and smaller, for sure.
Chap: Three-minute showers, right?
Rebekah: Two-minute. Two-minute showers. Bit essentially, because of it is an international multicultural environment, which is really, really wonderful you meet people from all over the world. I believe at this point there are over 60 nationalities represented between the two boats, I think maybe 40 on this ship. I think I was looking, they just send out this fun fact, like little graph. I think the majority are the top five or six are the U. S., Netherlands, Australia, UK, Ghana, Nigeria. And so, that’s just every continent except like Antarctica or something. There’s every continent represented, and many, many languages which makes it really fun, really interesting. There’s always something to learn. There’s always someone new to connect with in the dining hall. It’s just a really cool environment. There are a lot of Africans on board. And I found talking to many that might have started as day crew when it visited the ship and are now working permanently on the ship as well, which has been really cool to hear more of their stories and how they ended up here.
Every single person on the ship has a crazy cool story how they ended up here. It is wild. But it’s not just hospital professionals. It is our medical professionals work in the hospital. We have a full academy because we have a lot of people here who are running things, who might be the director or something, or who are head of that part of the ship or part of the hospital, and so their families are here for, like, two, five years. So they do have an academy. My cabinmate, my roommate is one of the teachers, who is from Australia.
I’m trying to think of all the decks working down. On deck three you have all the clinics and the ORs in deck four. You have the whole hospital. On deck 6 are cabins, deck 7 basically almost the whole thing’s a dining room and a gathering area. And then you have a lot of offices. So you have people who are working here that are in the finance department. You have people who are maritime workers because it is a ship and it has to stay up to code and so you have a captain of the ship and you have all the officers and you have all the deck crew. So I’ve learned a lot about a ship. The engine room was like quite impressive going through that, getting a tour of that. Just everywhere you look there’s something new to encounter and someone to learn from and it’s a really, really cool environment.
Chap: So you make friends from all over the world. That’s cool. Well, let’s talk about really the best part, which is, let’s talk about stories of God at work. You have told us a bunch of stories and I’ll let you choose which you want to share. Do you want to talk about the boys with cataracts or do you want to talk about the goiters, or the person who was burnt. . .?
Rebekah: It’s one of those things as a nurse. I’ve encountered a lot over my six, seven years as a nurse and just a lot of stories that never really leave you, but I can’t really talk about that at home as much and because of HIPAA and obviously there’s patient privacy here as well. And so I have to be thoughtful on how I share some of these stories as well. But I will say, it’s made me want to relish in my patients’ experiences and their stories and celebrate and cry with them and just engage more in my work as a nurse for the rest of my life. Because here I feel like there’s a little more space to engage with my patients. Back home it’s a little bit more busy. I think there’s a misconception of, you know, Oh, you’re a nurse and now you’re experiencing all these crazy wonderful things. They are crazy wonderful. And you see huge tumors being removed and people celebrating, but it’s also recognizing there’s a little bit more of a freedom to share. And sometimes when you have the same passion and the same heart, I do see miracles back home. I do get to experience these wonderful stories. But they are shocking and amazing and beautiful here as well.
And so some of those things I think is a lot of what we do because of surgeries is removing tumors. In the U. S. or in other countries that are more first world and have easier access to health care, you might get a lump on your jaw. Which is actually very common because all of the things we see are things you’d see everywhere in the world, it’s in first world countries they’re often taken care of in the earlier on, but in second or third world countries and for people who might have access to that kind of health care, they are not able to take care of it right away.
And so we have encountered just being here a lot of people with large tumors that they’ve lived with for years. And in this particular culture, there’s the belief that possibly this person is did something wrong in their life to deserve it, or maybe that they’re demon possessed, or maybe something’s just wrong with them, or they’re just ashamed of how they look, so they’re shunned, and so there’s a huge culture of shame and embarrassment and shunning around people who experience physical deformities. And so part of why this is so miraculous is that sometimes it’s the first time people are being touched and looked in the eye and called by name than in a long time. And when they arrive, one of the things I love about African culture is that everyone is greeted with a handshake. You hold their hand, you touch their hand. It’s very physical. It’s very warm.
You are asking, How are you? How’s your day? Which they speak Krio here, not Creole. It’s K-R-I-O. So how you greet someone is, Aw di bodi?, which is, How are you? Literally, How is the body? And you greet them and you say, How did you sleep? And how’s your family? And how’s your health? It’s an engagement into who they are as a person. And that is a very normal greeting, to have that kind of conversation. And so you’re meeting these patients and some of them won’t look you in the eye. And then the surgeries are being done and it is difficult. It is not magic overnight. There are nasogastric tubes in for two weeks and there are multiple IV sticks and blood work and things being prodded and wound care and it’s painful and it’s a hard recovery and then sometimes there’s setbacks with infections and sometimes you have to go back for a second or third surgery.
It’s like any kind of medical care. It is not always black and white. It’s not always. The first time it goes successfully and a lot of them do really suffer in the healing process, but there is this gratitude at the end. But it’s not just about the end. It’s also the process of like caring for them and engaging with them and dancing with them and playing music and crying with them when they find out bad news about something happened at home and they’re stuck here. And coming alongside them and playing games, and that’s what is so impactful about this. And so I’ve worked on 2 different wards. So, on the hospital currently in this field service in Sierra Leone has done plastic surgery, does general surgery, which works with like goiter removals, pediatric ophthalmology, lipoma removals, hernia repairs, things like that.
Then you have maxillofacial, and so maxillofacial does a lot of jaw tumor removal reconstructions with like the face and the neck. And then plastics, I mentioned that already, but they do a lot of like burns, and it’s not necessarily what you envision. Like recovering visually would look visually back to the way their other arm is, but it’s recovering function. So a lot of it is giving them back the ability to move their hand again or move their arm again, but they still have maybe lost muscle or it looks still significantly burned. And then you also have orthopedics. So that’s mostly kids who are coming in with severely bowed legs for different reasons and straightening their legs.
I was privileged for the first couple months to work on the maxillofacial wards, and so those patients are often there longer, and so they were with us for weeks or months. And so you get to know those patients really well. I had one particular patient who was young, he was around 12. And he had a tumor removed from his jaw, and they had to reconstruct his jaw with a graft from his rib and he had his mouth wired shut. And so when I took care of him, it was right after the surgery and he was really, really sick, really miserable. He was a brave kid, really pushed his way through. It is terrifying having your mouth shut, especially when, and this is the more of the nursing graphic side, but you’re vomiting and you can’t have your mouth open. So for a child to go through that too, there’s just a lot of a grit and bravery there. And so especially as a nurse, you’re just encouraging as much as you can and braving through the tough times and encouraging and celebrating and playing in the good times.
There were weeks where I remember I was the first one to help him learn how to eat for the first time while his mouth was shut, working with him the whole day just to take liquids by mouth and celebrating every milliliter that we got in. It was worth celebration and a sticker and a clap and we had a secret handshake and it was just celebrating through that, and then watching his whole journey over those six weeks. And he comes back in, and he had the surgery to have the wires removed. And I had gone into the ward to get something, I wasn’t even working. I didn’t even know that he had had that surgery that day, and I hear someone calling my name, “Bekah, Bekah,” and I was like, Wait, what young boy do we have in our ward?
And I whipped around, and it was this kid, and he was calling my name for the first time, and I lost it, because I had been one of his primary nurses and he had just made such a mark in my life. I would come, would come down on my off days just to see how he was doing, and his mama. And he just ran into my arms. But this is the reality: his surgery actually had complications and it was infected and so they were, it was tough recovery and it wasn’t the ideal everything’s fixed 100 percent ending that you would want just all packaged in a bow.
But that’s the reality of healthcare, and the reality is, he left better off than he came in, but with a plan and with the support for help down the road as well. And so, anyway, I saw him, all the transitions along the way, and so the day that he left he literally jumped out of the car and ran into my arms and just sobbed, and I was not ready for that at all
But it just was a reminder of how we know it’s an impact for us as healthcare workers, the people here. . . we feel it’s such an impact. But I think to also realize this was life-shaping for this kid as well and his experience in life. We had a journal for him, and the amount that the day crew, and the nurses, and all sorts of staff, just so much encouragement in his life, and spoke into him. And that kid left loved, feeling loved, knowing he was important, knowing he was smart, knowing he had a future. And that’s what matters, not just the physical healing. So I love that kid. I’m gonna miss him.
But you know, I think one of the things I love also about here is the culture. It’s a warm culture where dancing and celebration is a very normal part of life, and singing and community is very normal. People look after each other, and even the wards are open and so they’re not private rooms, the beds sometimes are across from each other. And so you have patients coming over to comfort the patient that’s pre-op and the patient that had that surgery two days ago walks over and says, It’s going to be okay. Look at my scar. I’m healing. You know, Look at my drain. I don’t feel pain. Or My pain, it’s getting better. You’re going to be okay. These people are going to take care of us. And these are, this is like a normal occurrence. We see this happening all the time. The pre-op patients come in, and the post-op patients will, after a few hours, start talking, and they’ll start playing, you know, Connect Four together. And they’re talking about, Oh, I see my scar, just people being like, look at my tube, or look at my surgery. You’re going to be fine, or just, listen to them. They’re going to help you. And so, it’s even just that community aspect is so cool. That doesn’t exist where I work in the U.S.
And then even just like, I love dance. I’m one of those people that will put on music and dance. Like when you were moving houses, just blasting gospel music as loud as we could just to make it fun. That’s just a normal part of making life better. And to know that it’s such a normal part here and that we can do that on a regular basis. So every evening that I work, we have like a seven o’clock dance party down the hall and all the hall, everyone in the wards will come out and so you have a bunch of kids and wheelchairs and adults with tubes sticking out of their noses and everyone in patient gowns and everyone’s just bopping around to some afro beats and it’s just a good time. And that’s just a normal part and that’s something that I love about the culture here. And it really lifts the patient’s spirits. A lot of times if it’s their first time, there’s kind of this l shock of what is happening. And then it just takes way down the hall and they’re moving and grooving, and then on the way, it’s never just one walk. Everyone’s like, let’s keep going, let’s keep going, you know, choose this song, do this song. And when they move from one stage to the other to a low-care unit or go home, we always let them choose a song and we celebrate them and sing it and dance them out to that, and things like that.
It’s just a way of like engaging with people. And even if you can’t speak the language, Krio is like a kind of a pidgin English. And so there’s a lot you can understand even if you don’t know Krio and vice versa, but they’re just a human connection, the holding hands, the saying, hello, good morning. My name is Bekah. What is your name? And just asking and engaging is bringing so much dignity to patients who, depending on what they’re going through, might just really be missing that human connection and the desire to be seen as a person. And the staff really do that. It’s so genuine. It is so real. It’s not a facade. It’s just a very genuinely loving place.
Chap: Share one more story. You had said just this week that you’d had some kids, and their ophthalmology. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Rebekah: Yeah, so I’m currently working on a general surgery ward and as one of the only pediatric nurses, I am getting all of the pediatric ophthalmology kids who have congenital cataracts or maybe from trauma- there are different reasons kids can get cataracts that impair. So kids have cataracts. And again, in first world countries it’s something that might be taken care of really, really early on. But these are kids that are 10, 12, 15, 18, 17. I don’t know too much about it, I’ve asked some questions, but there’s a certain age that limits what they can do surgically, if they can’t actually help or whatever.
But they’ve been doing young kids, like 5-6 is what I’ve seen, but again, in terms of medical surgical capabilities, I’m not an expert on that. But just from a nursing care side we had some kids come in this week. And you’re getting ready, they’re getting them ready for surgery for the next day. They had their surgery, they come back, they’re wearing eye patches. And so, they have to wear those eye patches for almost 24 hours until the next morning when the doctor’s around. And so, especially for the kids that are have surgery on both eyes, the essentially have the eye patches on both eyes for over 24 hours. And if they’re young, 5 or 6 years old, that’s really scary. And so the goal from a nursing perspective is to get them through that hard time. But then the next morning, the start of the shift starts with the doctors rounding and they take off the eye patches and of course, they’re examining their eyes and, and the kids are seeing for the first time.
And I just had this moment where I left my shift and I was like, Did I just see the blind be given their sight today? Did I just see kids that were blind get their sight back or see for the very first time? I just can’t help but marveling, seeing what I’m seeing. I know I probably get emotional talking about it, but seeing people receive unbelievable amounts of healing in their life and seeing children. . . When you haven’t seen for a while, your brain basically has to learn how to communicate again with your eye. And so it’s not that all of a sudden you can see perfectly clearly. Things are blurry, and colors don’t make sense, and there’s a lot that needs to happen before they can see fully. It’s going to take weeks for their brain to relearn how to communicate with their eyes.
But it was so marveling watching them marvel. And you can’t help but be amazed and excited. And so it has brought new life into just everything that our team has done. And every day I literally popped out of bed to go to work. I’ve never been so excited to go to work today. I bounced out of bed ready to just go down and see some kids get their patches removed and see for the first time. And so that’s tomorrow morning. I’m going to bounce out of bed again because I get to go. We go see some of those kids see for the first time, so it’s not always that magical, but it can be. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of people’s journeys, and that’s why I became a nurse in the first place. Because we don’t get to choose what we go through, we just get to be stewards of what’s handed to us in life, and if people are going to go through the absolute worst things in life, I would love to just be there to help in any vulnerable moments I can.
Chap: Well, that is a good word. That’s a good word. It’s true for all of us as Christians. But I appreciate you and your sacrifices. I remember standing before the congregation and saying, “Who knows, God may call some of our children to be far from us for a while.” And here this is happening, so I missed you this Christmas, but it’s a privilege to be the hands and feet of Christ and appreciate you taking the time to talk about it.
Rebekah: Thanks for having me on this podcast. I really appreciate it. And if I can add anything, just as your daughter, I will say, I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent and to let go of your kids, but just let them go. Because I know there’s a time when they’re in your home and then they’re not. But you and mom are my biggest cheerleaders, and as an adult, that still is true. And that means the world, and that’s the biggest empowerment. It’s not perfect, and we don’t have perfect relationships, but there’s openness and honesty, and I feel like you guys are my cheerleaders. And just from knowing I’m on a family parenting podcast- sometimes your kids need your advice and your wisdom, but sometimes they just need to know that you’re their cheerleaders, and it means the world. So, thank you for being that for me. And also, just whatever your adult children are doing, don’t stop encouraging them and loving them.
Chap: Amen. Got all teary there at the end.
Rebekah: Thanks, Dad. I love you.
Chap: I love you, too.
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