HANNIBAL – Nicole Lukens, a 2008 graduate of HLGU’s nursing program, has spent the last year working with Mercy Ships. “Their results are life changing,” she said. “They are literally in the work of making the lame walk and the blind see.”
A couple years ago, Nicole felt called to use her skills in a long-term missions capacity, and after much research, decided to partner with Mercy Ships aboard the Africa Mercy (AFM), a faith-based floating hospital that delivers free, world-class surgical services to the forgotten poor in developing nations. Following her recent field service, she has committed to serving for another two years.
“My time at HLGU gave me the building blocks for what I needed be a good and compassionate nurse,” Nicole said. “I didn’t have close family members or any friends who were in the medical field so many of my nursing instructors were my first nurse mentors. I learned so much from them.”
The AFM, refitted from a Danish rail ferry, is 500 feet long and houses approximately 400 crew members from up to 40 different countries. The hospital portion of the ship covers 13,000 square feet and consists of five operating rooms, a four bed recovery, intensive care for up to five individuals and 80 ward beds. Surgical procedures provided include cataract removal and lens implants, tumor removal, cleft lip and palate reconstruction, club feet and bowed leg reconstruction, obstetric fistula repair, and more.
“Their results are life changing. They are literally in the work of making the lame walk and the blind see.” – Nicole Lukens
Nicole works aboard the AFM as a charge nurse in A Ward where one of her duties is to monitor patients after their surgeries, and though there are a lot of similarities to working in a regular hospital, there are some rewarding and challenging differences as well.
One of the biggest challenges is not being able to speak to patients without a translator. However, Nicole still feels that despite the language barrier, she is able to build stronger relationships with her patients on the ship.
Language isn’t always a barrier, though. There is a joy that cannot be expressed in words when a little boy is able to walk on straight legs and kick a soccer ball for the first time, or a little girl is able to see, when a woman is freed of a goiter that was slowly suffocating her, and when the weight of a 30 pound tumor was lifted from a young lady’s back.
Nicole appreciates the Christian atmosphere on the ship. “We spend a lot of time in prayer. We start and end our working day with prayer as a team. We pray for patients just before they leave for surgery. It’s just a really nice environment to work in,” Nicole expressed.
“I love the community on the ship,” she continued. “Relationships are built very quickly because we spend so much time together.”
Close living quarters can also make personal time a bit tricky to come by, but with diligence, Nicole has managed to develop a balance. She’s also learned to be creative with storage space in the cabin she shares with three other girls.
“Since I live on a ship, the walls and ceiling are magnetic so we use magnets to hang a lot of things,” said Nicole. “I sometimes even hang my tablet on the ceiling with a magnet so I can watch movies in bed. I will miss magnetic walls when I leave the ship. They are very convenient.”
Following its recent stay in Benin, the AFM just started a 10-month field service in Cameroon. Two big benefits come from staying in a country for so long. First, it allows for more invasive surgeries that require longer recovery times.
“Releasing burn contractures and straightening crooked legs won’t do any good if we can’t provide the long physical therapy it takes to recover,” said Nicole.
Second, it allows the volunteers more time to assist in building local health resources, because in addition to providing free, life-changing surgeries, the AFM also works to train local medical staff, and strengthen the country’s healthcare system.
The AFM is not equipped to help everyone with a problem though. There are health conditions that fall out of the AFM’s scope of practice. Sometimes it’s too late to operate or the person turns out to not be a surgical candidate. Sometimes the needs are too many and all available slots are filled.
“Those are the most frustrating and heart-breaking times,” expressed Nicole. “When I first came to this country I thought I had prepared myself for such needs; however, knowledge of a need and actually seeing it are very different. I was emotionally devastated by the needs here that were so much greater than the capacity we had to help.”
Nicole sometimes fights the urge to close her eyes to that side of the world and not feel the pain, but she knows that’s not how God views things.
She said, “When we ask God to love like He loves, we must expect heartbreak because the consequences of a sinful world break His heart too. By allowing myself to really see people and feel a little of their pain, I am able to better understand the heart of God, and am being molded closer to His image.
“It’s easy to focus on the enormous scale of depravity looming before us, but in those moments all I have to do is look around me at the patients we are able to help. We may not be able to help the entire world, but for the individuals we do help, we have changed their entire world.”
Through God’s mercy, those aboard the Africa Mercy are able to live and love and do the work of the Lord in the poorest countries of the world.
“There is a strength that comes from living and working with others whose goals are the same as yours,” said Nicole. “We may have been brought to the ship by different means, we may have different ideas, we may have different levels of maturity, different talents and skills, but all of us are here because we felt a call and are acting on that call to serve the forgotten poor.”