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!