The last time I did any kind of update on my website was back in February. I want to reconnect with you by telling a patient’s story that impacted me in a very powerful way. This post looks long and it is. But I’ve timed it and it’ll take you just a quick 8 minutes to read. I hope you continue.
You may know that from November to February I returned again to work with Mercy Ships, this time in Madagascar. There are a lot of things to sum up the three short months I was there, but nothing really as important as sharing about Fitia.
On our final day screening in Mahajanga one of the last patients to present to us was Fitia, a two and a half year old who was burned from an accidental scald burn in the kitchen in September 2014. I was the one pre-screening patients as they were trickling in late that afternoon. I remember a mother holding a shirtless, frail, and scared Fitia in her arms. She stood in front of me just holding her and not speaking. It was that all too familiar scene I have witnessed so many times as a nurse working in the developing world. A loving parent thrusting their sick child in my direction with desperation in their eyes. I worked in a Burn ICU for five years so I knew what I was looking at yet at the same time I had never seen anything quite like it. The burn happened five months prior and was massively infected. Fitia was clearly suffering and as her mom brought her closer to me so I could get a better look her whimpers grew to a full on cry.
It’s not within our scope of practice on the ship to accept patients with non-healed burns let alone ones with large infections. We have been very strict with this policy over the years because of cross contamination of infections in the ward. But that day in Mahajanga I found myself pausing before telling the mother that unfortunately there would be nothing we were going to be able to do to help her daughter. I paused for a long time. I sighed. I held back tears. This burn was beyond giving advice on wound care. There was no possible way she was going to let anyone touch her and without IV pain and sedative medications that would be torture anyway. Her only option was surgical debridement under general anesthesia. The other option may likely have been slow death from sepsis. Fitia was already malnourished and weak. So I paused. I considered calling the ship and asking the hospital director for an exception realizing it was highly unlikely that one would be granted. Ashamedly, my pride began to creep in. I didn’t want the leadership thinking I was incapable of making difficult decisions and asking about something that I clearly knew better than to ask about. Were they going to lose confidence in my ability to do my job? How could I even think about myself when these two people were standing before me, their last shred of hope fueling their long journey to Mahajanga to see if there was anything at all we could do to help. Fortunately my pride did not prevail and my colleague and I decided we would call back to the ship to ask about Fitia’s case. The director quickly convened the hospital leadership and the plastic surgeon and then called us back with an answer a few hours later.
We accepted the patient and she and her mom flew with us in our 10-seater charter plane back to the ship the next day. Two days later she had her first surgical debridement. The wound began looking so good that she was skin grafted not long after that. Just a few weeks later she was discharged from the ward once again a healthy, plump child.
Honestly, there is a lot of heartache in the work that we do. During screenings we meet all sorts of people that we cannot help and for whom we cannot make exceptions. Often after pausing to decide what I will do I have to tell a patient standing in front of me that we are not able to help them. They tell me how long they traveled to come see us and often that we are their last hope because they either cannot afford to pay for a surgery at the local hospital or simply because the service isn’t available. These cases, these individuals weigh on me heavily. However, Fitia is one of those beautiful success stories and so I celebrate her. She is one of the most memorable in my career with Mercy Ships. Her story is not mine alone and that’s something that I love so much about working with this organization. The shared purpose. The teamwork. The hands on compassion in each step of the process that results not only in lives changed for the better but sometimes, like in this case, actually saves them.
Our chief medical officer and long time max fax surgeon talks about how the work we get to do on the ship is like inviting people back to sit again at the table of humanity. Many of our patients have such drastic deformities that they have become outcasts in their communities. Many go into hiding, only coming out at night as to avoid ridicule. They don’t participate in normal, daily life activities. I remember as a teenager not wanting to go to school because of a small pimple on my face. Can you imagine what it would feel like to walk out into your neighborhood with a 5 pound tumor hanging off the side of your face? These disfigurements are so drastic and ostracizing. Not by their choice these patients have lost their seat at the table of humanity. And the privilege we have in the screenings, operations, rehab, post-op care we do is getting to invite them back to full participation in community. To look them in the eyes after no one has done that to them in years. To remove the scarf covering their tumor and throw it away because it is no longer needed.
You have heard me say this often but I’ll say again what a great privilege and honor it is for me to work with Mercy Ships. I have found my stride being a part of the wonderful team and community on the ship that gets the pleasure of inviting the poor and marginalized back to the table of humanity. I’ve committed to working with Mercy Ships for two more years starting in July 2015. I’ll take on a new position called “Field Screening Coordinator.”
And now, here comes the plug:
Together with Mercy Ships, I have set a budget of $1215 / month to cover my crew fees (room and board), insurance, flights, and various small living expenses during these years. I’ve happily poured a lot of my savings into this work over the years and I will continue to do that as much as needed. For this to be sustainable, however, I’m asking for help as awkward and uncomfortable as that sometimes can be.
Raising support/funding my “salary” through donations from family and friends is a rare concept and strange for many people. It’s still a bit weird even for me who has done this before. This unique model that Mercy Ships uses not only helps offset the massive cost of operating a hospital ship but also has some cool, positive aspects to it. Since everyone on the ship is a volunteer I’ve found a lot of the crew to be highly motivated. It’s inspiring to be in that kind of community. But the part I like most, and the part that I want to do my best to relay, is that donors have a sense of being partners in the work themselves. I’ve been humbled by the amazing support I’ve had over the years and truly mean it when I say that all the people that have supported me financially and in other ways over the years feel like trusted colleagues in the work I do on the ship and the work we do as a whole in Mercy Ships. It’s such a privilege for me to share this with others.
I’ve rambled enough. If you have stuck with me this long you are probably ready for me to tell you how I need help. I’ve had a website at www.nateclaus.com for a few years now. This remains the “go-to” place to find all sorts of information about the work and about how to support it. There’s a “donate” link that will take you to a Mercy Ships funding page specifically for me. If you are from the US and donate through that link you’ll get a tax receipt for any donation made. As I mentioned before, my goal is to raise $1215 / month during my next two years with Mercy Ships. There’s an option to do monthly donations. In fact, if I can find 60 people to donate just $20 a month I’ll have hit my goal (hint, hint). But donations however large or small, including one time donations, go such a long way and means so much to me. And I will do my best each of these years to return to the US to work for 2-3 months to try and supplement this support and contribute to my monthly budget. I’m still working with Mercy Ships to make this a reality. As always, if you have any questions about these financial things I would be happy to answer them.
Ok, finally. I mentioned my website and I mentioned how what I like about raising support is getting to share my work with others. So, how will I do that in the coming years?
At a minimum I’ll commit to:
-blog post every other Wednesday (biweekly)
-more in-depth Newsletter (every six weeks via email)
-some kind of snail mail (every six months)
If you don’t already receive email updates from me and would like to, please send me an email or message. You can find contact details on the “about” page. And whenever I am in town I’d love to have a visit and share face to face. Just drop me a line!
Well, this is long-winded enough. Thanks for reading and thank you for your partnership. I’m honored to have it and look forward to the years to come.