11 May On International Nurses’ Day: How the skills of international nurses are vital in bringing equality to global healthcare
Katie Henderson is the very definition of an international nurse.
The 25-year-old from Nairn, Scotland, is just one of the international nurses aboard charity hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, docked at Dakar in Senegal, West Africa.
In fact, she is just one of a varied crew made up of around 50 nations all serving with Mercy Ships united in the shared belief that everyone – no matter where they are from – has the right to safe, affordable surgery and healthcare.
Two-thirds of the world’s population cannot get access to safe surgery when they need it. As a result, a staggering 16.9 million people die every year from conditions requiring surgical care.
Nurses like Katie, who is a paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) nurse, saw the extraordinary unmet need for improved global surgery and wanted to play a part in the mission of Mercy Ships.
“I just think that it should not matter where you come from, where you live or how much money you have. If there’s a treatment – you should be able to get it. Everyone should get the treatment they need,” she said.
Katie decided she wanted to be a nurse when she was in high school – but it was her love and empathy for children that fuelled it.
“I always knew I wanted to work with children. I thought I wanted to be a teacher but then I became interested in medicine. When I discovered I could be a children’s nurse – that’s what really sold it to me.”
Plans in tatters
After completing a nursing degree at Glasgow Caledonian University, Katie went to work as an intensive care nurse at the world-renowned children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. As an international centre of excellence in child healthcare, it was a brilliant place to perfect her skills.
After three years, she decided to take a gap year, but that year was 2020 – and the pandemic struck.
With all her travel plans in tatters, she remembered a friend who had talked about Mercy Ships and realised it combined her love of travel, her work, and her faith with her passion to help others, so she applied.
During the pandemic, like nurses all around the world, her contribution was part of a global effort to save lives in unprecedented times. She worked in COVID-19 intensive care units at Whittington Hospital in London and in the second wave in the Royal Free Hospital, London.
And she felt more aware than ever that she was part of a bigger picture.
“It felt big. The whole world was battling the same thing and we were all struggling. It was probably the first time that all nurses internationally combined to tackle one thing on such a scale, and we all knew we were.”
When she heard she has been accepted with Mercy Ships she was galvanised to work towards that global connection again.
She said, “There’s American nurses, Colombian nurses, nurses from Germany, Sweden, France and then there’s day crew who are local to Senegal and other African crew from Ghana, Sierra Leone among others. It’s truly international! It is amazing working with nurses from so many different countries because you learn something new from them every day!”
When Katie arrived in Senegal in February, it was the same day the Africa Mercy arrived back in Dakar. She helped prepare the ship for its first surgeries onboard since the pandemic, as all efforts had to be focused in-country instead because COVID-19 made working on a ship difficult.
As the day arrived for the first patient – a young woman in her 20s called Sokhna – to have surgery, Katie said she felt a little out of her comfort zone.
“I was worried about working with adults, mostly due to the language barrier. With children, you can play with toys, and it puts them at ease. I was worried about forming a bond with adults, but it was all easy! They wanted to know about us too.”
And sure enough, a bond was formed quickly with Sokhna, who had spent her life living with a cleft palate, as Katie’s strong sense of empathy came to the fore.
Katie recalled, “It was overwhelming for me because I was trying to feel what she was feeling. She was special for so many reasons. She had come 14 hours for her surgery, she had never been out of her hometown. It was her first time seeing the sea, being on a ship. You can see why it was overwhelming for her and I did all I could to help her feel better.
“Caring for that patient was so different from at home. She was in post-op for the next two to three days and I kept seeing her smiling and seeing her happy. She kept holding the mirror to her face and seeing what her face looked like now. There was so much happiness! Then sending her home to her one-year-old baby to continue her life with so much hope was so uplifting.”
But she admits she still loves working with children most.
“We’ve had lots of children who had cleft palate operations – they are quite a big operation, so you look after them for five to seven days, so you see them when they’re quite sick and recovering and you witness their transformation. They start playing and smiling and becoming confident. It’s magical.”
The sense of hope and gratitude she is witnessing onboard is something she is savouring.
“It’s not that people at home are not grateful, parents are so grateful when you help their children. But here it is so overwhelming, because if we were not here – this would not happen. But at home, if people can’t go to a certain hospital, then they just go to a different hospital.
“There is so much joy and hope here.”
That joy has meant she has extended her volunteering from three months to six.
Katie said, “Pretty much from the moment I got here I was sad about leaving, even within a couple of weeks, I thought, I don’t want to leave.
“There’s no experience that compares to this – and no bigger joy!”
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