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January 19, 2014

Hope Awakened: On a floating hospital, Terre Haute nurse sees lives of needy transformed

The woman was 24 years old. She weighed 70 pounds.

She had young children and, for a long time, a heavy burden. A tumor, large as her head, engulfed her jaw. Eating and breathing became all but impossible for her. Undoubtedly, she’d been ostracized because of it, too. Such cases are rare in the Western world, but they occur frequently in the Republic of Congo. The coastal African nation has just one doctor for every 20,000 people.

As the anesthesia wore off, her eyes fluttered open to see the eyes of Becky Price, her post-anesthesia recovery unit nurse. As a “PACU” nurse, Price routinely is the first face a patient sees. “I’m the one they wake up next to,” Price said. This time, though, was extraordinary.

The woman began touching her own face, again and again. She could tell the deformity that had overtaken her life was gone.

“She kept looking at me and looking at the doctor, and tears were just streaming down her face, and I was crying and the doctor was crying. She was so grateful,” Price recalled Tuesday afternoon. “It was the most touching moment of my career.”

It happened aboard the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest charity hospital ship. The boat has been docked at Pointe Noire Bay along the Republic of Congo’s Atlantic coast since August and will stay until June. Price, who works as a PACU nurse at Terre Haute Regional Hospital, served from Dec. 29 to Jan. 11 on the Africa Mercy, which is fully staffed by more than 400 volunteers at any time, from physicians to custodians, all donating their time and skills for free.

Since 1978, the Mercy Ships fleet has treated more than 13.5 million people in 56 nations who have little or no access to health care. Their ailments would astound most Americans. Kids with improbably curved limbs, cleft lips and palates. Mothers with damaged reproductive systems. Seniors with severe cataracts on their eyes. Men, women and children with huge, benign tumors, often triggered by dental infections. Some need reconstructive surgery from a flesh-eating bacteria that erodes half their faces.

“Some very severe cases that you would never see in this part of the world,” Russ Holmes, Mercy Ships’ director of corporate relations, said by telephone Wednesday from the organization’s U.S. headquarters in Texas.

Care in high demand

Seven-thousand, three-hundred people lined up at Pointe Noire last summer for treatment. Many traveled far, some even from the republic’s troubled neighbor country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. A screening team narrowed the list to the most critical cases, between 3,000 and 4,000. Later, a Mercy Ships team used 4-wheelers on the mainland, trekking deep into the countryside to treat others, Holmes explained. The ship staff also trains local health-care workers on the ship.

On board the Africa Mercy, Price assisted with nearly 100 surgeries in her two week stint. Congolese interpreters helped Price pose “the most routine question of a nurse” in French, the official language, or regional African dialects: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, what is your pain level?” Their answers caught her attention. “They’d say, ‘8, but it’s OK,’” Price said.

“I’ve noticed they can tolerate an incredible amount of pain, because they’ve lived with pain all their life,” she added.

Some undergo several surgeries on the ship, which tend to be “very intense,” Price said.

Patients encounter Price after an operation. Her job is to help them awaken and start breathing on their own. Some Congolese children had never seen a white person before going aboard Africa Mercy and awakening to find this brown-eyed, dark-haired nurse at their bedside. “So it was very scary for them,” she said. “That’s why we involve their families.” At night, a family member typically sleeps on a small cot beneath a patient’s bed. In daytime, Pointe Noire locals entertained patients and staff by singing in the ship’s corridors.

Quarters are tight for the volunteers, too. Five staffers share an “itty-bitty” living space, Price said, are limited to 2-minute showers and eat simple meals with the 400 other volunteers from as many as 72 different countries. “But it was so fulfilling,” she said. “There was a beauty in the simplicity.”

Congolese people also earn money by working on the Africa Mercy’s day crew. One day crew member invited Price and other PACU staffers to visit her home on shore. Beyond modest by most Americans’ standards, her house contained just enough space for nine children, the woman, her husband and their belongings, including a single bed.

“She was so proud of it,” Price said of their dwelling. “They were so content. They were so happy. They were the most joyful kids you’d ever meet. It was beautiful.”

A change of heart

In a way, a dream led Price to that moment. A year and a half ago, she dreamt that her own kids were playing in a field with African kids. A few days later, she had a conversation with her pastor, Vince McFarland at Maryland Community Church on Terre Haute’s southeast side, and he mentioned an opportunity for her to volunteer on the Africa Mercy. “That was it,” Price said, snapping her fingers as she recalled that epiphany.

Soon, she began the paperwork and approval process to serve as a Mercy Ships volunteer. As the time neared, she, her husband Brian, and their children, Andrew (8) and Emily (5) prepared.

Mission work isn’t a foreign concept to Price. A minister’s daughter, she was born in South Carolina and moved with her family to Texas and Georgia, watching her dad’s work. She resisted her parents’ mentions of missionary journeys until attending a gathering of the 7:22 college ministry as an 18-year-old nursing school student at Mercer University in Atlanta. “I fought it, and I fought it, until my heart just changed,” she said.

The next day, Price received a random email, seeking a volunteer to lead a children’s mission in Thailand. “I said, yes,” she remembered. “I got my world rocked early.”

A few years later, she served in a similar role in Calcutta, India. She met her husband, Brian, in Atlanta, and they eventually made missions trips to China and Guatemala. They’ve made a commitment to do future missions as a family, kids included. “We’ve always had a heart for missions,” Brian said.

Such journeys perfectly fit Becky’s spirit, he added.

“She can look at anybody, in any situation, and think only love for them,” Brian said.

The 24-year-old Congolese mother Price helped treat for the facial tumor faced an incurable ailment. The procedure to remove her particular tumor will extend and improve her life, though. The woman’s tearful, amazed reaction showed its impact.

“She was so grateful,” Price said. “It was really awesome.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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