Wednesday, April 9, 2008


After finishing my last evening shift, my friends and I had a little party in the lounge. We made sure, somehow, that all of the essentials were, CAMERAS and CHOCOLATE!!! Saying goodbye to these beautiful people who have touched my heart so very deeply, was not easy. A few of them are actually moving to Boston this summer, which I'm ecstatic about!! The majority, however, I may sadly never see this world anyway...

However, I like to remind myself that the the world is round and my future adventures yet unknown! I'm simply going to hope in the possibility that our paths cross unexpectedly someday down the road!

As for all of you out there reading, inquiring, and praying, THANK YOU!  Unlike my "family" on the Mercy Ship, I will likely be seeing most of you very soon! ( Ps. the last picture is of my bunk. I wanted to show you all how close at heart I was able to keep you as a result of the folder FULL of letters and pictures!!! You'll never know how I looked forward to opening them each day!)

Signing off,
Katie O

Couple cool shots from the road

Just  few interesting shots from the road. I was particularly fascinated by the termite hill (photograph #2). It stood nearly eight feet tall and six feet wide! The termites don't actually live in the mound, but rather create the mound as they burrow deep into the red earth. As it turns out, the soil in the termite hills is an excellent material for home building! Many of the locals are able to stay protected and dry by using this unlikely resource as their cement!

A Journey to Beautiful

Though I have no photos to share, I wish to paint a mental picture for you of a very special group of women that I had the privilege of caring for over the course of my last two weeks on board the ship. These women, known as our VVF patients, have suffered more atrocities related to their Vaginal Vasicular Fistulas than words can describe. 

Essentially, the abbreviation VVF is used to describe the experience of having  internal wounds that lead to a life of incontinence. Either planning a family or having been raped during the brutal war, these young women find themselves pregnant without any perinatal care. Remembering that many of these females are small in stature because of their youth and/or years of malnutrition, they often find that labor is complicated. If the infant is too big, or the mother is simply not progressing, the baby gets stuck and dies in the birth canal. The expectant mother, now mourning the loss of the dead child inside, may still be forced to labor for over a week before the lifeless body is passed. This "hard labor" causes a series of tears between either the bladder and the vagina, the rectum and the vagina, or a combination of both. In any case, these young, once vibrant women are left to deal with the humiliation of a life leaking stool and urine. They are often rejected by their husbands, and because of their odor, become outcasts in their own society. Many of these women lose hope and attempt to take their own lives.

This is where Mercy Ships offers a glimmer of hope. A special screening takes place, followed by a campaign to restore the lives of these women with corrective surgery. Though the surgery is relatively simple and high tech, success is not a given. In fact, nearly 90% of the women we served were back for a second or third attempt. Scar tissue is often the greatest barrier to such success, as it complicates both access to the fistulas as well as healing post operatively.

The VVF women are admitted the night before surgery, are bathed, prayed for, and prepped. Surgery can vary from one hour to five, depending on the severity  of the fistulas. Confirmation of success is available within hours of surgery, as either a dye test is administrated or apparent leakage is noted. As you might imagine the post operative hours are incredibly emotional, as we anxiously await the result. 

It was within these hours that I found myself most challenged. Though we rejoiced with those who were now "dry', we ached for those who would have to face life incontinent once again. I followed these women, some as young as 18 and others as old as 50, throughout their two week post operative stay on board the ship. We got to know and trust each other in ways most never experience. They taught me resilience. They shared strength and perseverance. I only hoped to show them love, respect, and hope.......

And speaking of hope, I  did get to attend one "dress ceremony" for two of the women I cared closely for. Their surgeries were successful and for the first time in as much as 15 years these two were "dry". Mercy Ships provided them with beautiful new dresses and head pieces. They came into the room dancing and singing praises to God, with the biggest smiles and crocodile tears physically possible. When they finished their dance they each gave their personal testimony of thanksgiving to God for his undying faithfulness in their lives. They were now to resume their place in to dance under the massive African sky....


As you can imagine, life on the ship is drastically different from life on the red soil. Though we were indeed docked in Africa, and had many opportunities to serve our Liberian brothers and sisters on board the ship's hospital, one could easily feel isolated from the actual country itself. You could essentially forget that you were in Liberia and miss out on the opportunity to embrace its rich culture. As a result, many of us recognized the need to get off ship and experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of land around us.  Going to church, shopping in the market, visiting orphanages and schools, guaranteed such exposure. On one such outing, I had the pleasure of visiting the Firestone plant, one of the first American companies to tap into the rich natural resources of Liberia.

Firestone, now Called Bridgestone, is a major manufacturer of tires around the world. And Liberia just happens to have one of the largest naturally occuring crop of rubber trees anywhere. An hour and a half drive outside of Monrovia, Firestone owns thousands of acres of rubber trees around which they have built a plantation. Employees work and live on this land in planned "districts" that include homes, schools, churches, markets, and even a golf course (see pictures above).  The combination of housing, employment, and breathtaking country side might seems ideal to the outsider. However, I caution you to remember that things are not always what they appear to be. Firestone has had a long history of abusing their employees, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay. Just a few weeks back, the government was bracing themselves for an uprising of employees who had not been paid by the company in over eight weeks! I ask you then, what is it that differentiates "employment" from indentured servant hood, or even slavery?

Needless to say, being at the plant evoked a great deal of internal conflict for me. The grounds were spectacular. The rubber trees were fascinating with their tiny little sap "taps" and unique foliage (the leaves actually grow out of the trunk in some instances, rather than off of the branches.) The opportunity to get off the ship and out of the city was much appreciated. BUT something was haunting me as I walked the winding paths of the EMPTY golf course and SILENT playgrounds. I couldn't help but wonder if these trees could talk, what story would they tell?

Swab the decks! Hoist the sail! Make way for the President!

A couple weeks back the Africa Mercy and her crew had the honor of a presidential visit paid by none other than her excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was a real thrill to be on board and experience the preparation and excitement that built with the anticipation of her arrival. It was even more of a privilege to have been able to attend the "private" press conference held on board the ship in our International Lounge. Normally you had to be a permanent crew member or a "distinguished guest" to have attended. However, at the last minute there were a few seats available and I was invited in! The President put her prepared speech in her pocket and admitted that she felt inspired to speak from her heart. What followed was a truly sincere dialogue explaining her vision for the Liberia, as well as her gratefulness to Mercy Ships for their ongoing partnership towards such a shared vision. 

I found this woman to have a profound presence and a bleeding heart for her people of Liberia. She spoke and you listened. She dreamed and you believed. She has the overwhelming task of rebuilding a country whose infrastructure has been slowly  demolished by years of dictatorship and war. Having learned about her prior to my travel to Liberia, having listened to her televised speeches of the past, and now having had the privilege of experiencing her up close and personal, I have great hope for Liberia! 

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Not for the faint at heart :)

Just a couple of pictures from a recent surgery I scrubbed in on! It was a ressection of an adenocarcinoma of the thyroid. I have plenty more photos, but thought I'd pick the least "offensive" for those of you whose forte' is not blood and guts!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Long time no blog??

Hello !!!

Yes, its me! I am indeed alive and well. Contrary to popular belief, I have not been eaten by a pride of lions, fallen to my death from a bananna tree, or been forced to walk the plank into the deep blue abyss! I still have all four limbs and some detectable traces of cerebral activity, allowing me to function at my baseline! :)

In all seriousness, I thankyou for your patience as its been well over two weeks since I've last updated my blog. I've been quite busy, working six of seven days for the last couple weeks. As you can imagine its been a very rich time, seeing much and learning even more. My only regret with regard to being able to share all of this with you, is that I'm forced to skim the surface of my experiences by choosing a HANDFUL of the amazing stories I have either witnessed or been a part of. In addition, the "heart" of my mission here in Liberia has taken place in the hospital, at the bedside of many beautiful patients whose privacy I have tried to maintain.

That having been said, please allow me to give you an idea of what I've been up to for the last twenty days or so....

As you might recall, my first few weeks on board the ship I found myself caring for many thyroidectomy, facial tumor, cleft lip, and hernia patients. Most of these people, though malnurished, were relatively "healthy" and did quite well post operatively. They were often admitted the night before surgery, and were discharged "home" within 2-3days. We had the privilege of providing a great deal of bedside teaching, covering topics of sexual health, personal hygeine, and care of surgical wounds. Once our patients were able to demonstrate an ability to properly care for their new sutures, staples, and dressings, they were discharged home with a followup appointment scheduled one week later.

Young and old, their stories varied greatly, but their joy was similarly made complete by the life changing surgeries they recieved. For example, it was incredibly moving to witness a mother's pride when her son Abel, four years old, was able to smile back at her for the FIRST time. He was born with a severe cleft lip and palate, making speech slurred and smiling impossible. Likewise, it was a privilege to see Alysha, age of 12, squeal with excitement as she looked in the mirror to see that for the first time that she had a profile! She was born without a bottom jaw and surgeons created one for her, made of titanium and bone! It was more than heart warming to watch Victor, a 70 yr old veteran, sleeping like a baby on his back for the first time in 15 years. He had been plagued by an enormous, painful, and extremely bloody spinal tumor, which not only disfigured him, but prevented him from ever laying on his bed. And it was truly a "sight for sore eyes" to witness Comfort, age 9, take off the patch to reveal a beautiful new prosthetic eye that replaced the reminants of the infected eye, eaten away by bacteria.

Thankfully, this list of celebratory stories goes on and on! Each one of them, in their own way, demonstrating strength, resilience, and sincere gratitude, touching me deeply. However, amongst the crowd, there's always one that leaves a footprint on your heart more profound than the rest. For me, this was Henry. A 21 year old student of Liberia's university, Henry was studying maritime law and sailing. His family had a local shipping business and he had high hopes of taking this industry to new heights. Attending school by day and working side jobs at night, Henry was doing his best to make that dream a reality.

Suddenly one day Henry's rigorous routine was interupted by a seemingly innocent toothache. As the days passed and the pain increased beyond the point of bearing , it was clear that he needed to extract the tooth. With only ONE dentist in all of Liberia, servicing several hundred thousand people, and costing far more than Henry's family could afford, he had no choice but to take the tooth out himself. Unfortunately, even with the tooth out the infection spread to his gums, the tissue of his right neck, and was rapidly making its way past the nipples of his chest. Once again, the pain became unbearable and his mental status was rapidly deteriorating as a result of the infection that was overtaking his system. He couldn't stand up on his own, nor could he speak coherently by the time he made his way to our gate late one night.

He was immediately placed in the ICU, requiring one to one care for the management of a plumeting blood pressure, horrific wound, and climbing temperature. The rate at which this bacteria was traveling and essentially "eating" his flesh was like nothing I've ever witnessed. By the time I took over on the evening shift, his entire right neck and chest was stripped of the first several layers of skin. His muscle and bone were exposed and there was no telling when or where it would end. He had 6 drains coming out of his mouth and another 12 in his chest to try to manage all of the purulent puss and blood accumulating between the layers of flesh he had remaining. He could barely respond to us and there was frank discussion about the possibility that he may not make it through the night.

I entered the isolation room to introduce myself to Henry. I remember thinking that he was too young, too handsome, and had too much to live for NOT to pull through this. When I bent down and took his hand, he looked me in the eyes and I distinctly remember seeing strength deep inside. You've heard it said that the eyes are the gateway tot he soul, and never before was this more true in his case. Though he was too weak to speak, his eyes told me he was somehow strong despite the drains, the blood, the puss, the pain, and the odds piling up against him with every minute that passed. I remember being comforted by that which I saw in his eyes. From that moment on I was committed to do whatever I could to help him return to health and to remind him of the strength he possessed, should he forget. Despite escrutiating pain, lack of sleep, and a completely foreign environment, Henry allowed us to perform the exhausting and painful dressing changes, the puss extractions every couple of hours, and even tolerated five more trips to the O.R. for tissue debridement.

Despite the odds, Henry made it through that first night like a champ. He made it through the next night and every one thereafter until he "graduated" from the ICU and joined the general population of patients on the ward. He had a long way to go and many risk factors related to his weakness, the extensive tissue damage, and his ability to regenerate healthy skin to that would protect him from future infection. However, as the days passed, I watched as he began to eat on his own, become more talkative, laugh, and even sing!Eventually he was walking on his own, and high fiving me in the hallway with the biggest, most vibrant smile I'd ever seen. With complete awe, I watched as precious life returned to Henry. I was overjoyed and simultaneously humbled by the memory of the fragility of this same life, demonstrated days before as he lie close to death in front of me.

My last interaction with Henry was at church last Sunday morning. We hold a service right in the ward in order that all, healthy or sick, can worship together. Henry and I had the privilege of sitting side by side, lifting our voices together, praising God for the great gifts He had given ...the BOTH of us.