I’m Jill Sullivan, 58 years old, from Cockatoo in the Dandenong Ranges south east of Melbourne, Victoria. I have been working as a registered nurse in the operating theatre for most of my nursing career spanning just over 35 years and currently work part-time at Monash Health in Anaesthetics and Recovery Room (PACU) as a Clinical Nurse Specialist.

I first heard about Mercy Ships about 10 years ago in a conversation with a friend. At the time I wasn’t in a position to be able to go, but I probably Googled it several times each year thinking ‘one day’.

Last month I returned from a two week volunteer position in the operating theatres on the Mercy Ship, while it was docked in Douala, port city of Cameroon, West Africa. This was my second term with Mercy Ships, having volunteered in Madagascar in 2015 as a PACU nurse. It was such a wonderful experience; I knew straight away I would be returning. In Douala, I filled the role of Anaesthetic Assistant.

There are five operating theatres on the ship. During my stay, two theatres were being used for eye surgery and the other three theatres for maxillofacial, plastics, and women’s health surgery. Each theatre was staffed with volunteer health professionals from all over the world and had very full schedules. The teamwork was amazing, and the care and compassion heartwarming. It was clear that we shared the same goals and that everyone was there each day because they wanted to be. I loved being in that environment.

Many of the surgeries were of a type that may not be seen in Australia such as large facial tumours, disfiguring burns contractures, and dreadful complications of prolonged obstructed childbirth. After suffering many years of pain, disability and isolation, the opportunity for these people to come onto the ship and have free surgery and postoperative care can be life-changing. Mercy Ships also runs Medical Capacity Building programs and local surgeons and anaesthetists were on board learning new techniques, working together. Good communication is essential in any team environment but especially when most of us were from different backgrounds. Utilisation of the World Health Organisation’s Surgical Safety Checklist was exemplary and the standard of health care excellent.

The orientation program for operating theatre staff was comprehensive and began before arrival with welcome emails, an orientation handbook, and readings of policy and procedure. This was all then explained further with a full day of orientation to the ship, then the department, and then the specific role.

Almost everyone working on board is a volunteer. Donations that are made are put to the cost of running the ship and performing the surgeries and not the staff. We all paid our own way, including all travel, and contribute to the cost of our accommodation on board. We sleep and eat on the ship so getting to work was just down the corridor, and we were free to go into town when off duty using the Mercy Ships shuttle or local taxis. The ship has Wi-Fi, and a Starbucks café. There is a pool on the top deck and a secured area on dock for those who want to run or walk in the dock area. On weekends there are no planned surgeries and many of the volunteers visit local attractions and markets etc.

Some local Cameroonians are employed as day crew to assist with some duties on the ship and others as interpreters for the patients and their families. One evening we were invited to a day crew member’s home for a meal. We felt like VIP guests as we were treated to a stunning array of delicious traditional foods, followed by singing, prayers and expressions of thanks from locals and lots of hugs.

Volunteer positions are not just for medical professionals. It takes about 400 people of many skills to run the ship during its 10-month stay in port. I encourage the reader to visit the Mercy Ships website; it is easy to navigate and view current volunteer opportunities. There are more than 150 different roles to be filled. Applying online was easy and very thorough. There are excellent online resources on the Mercy Ships website, and any questions I had received very quick responses and support from the staff at Mercy Ships Australia.

I recommend this experience to everyone. Now that I have been twice I’m sure I will return. Thank you, Mercy Ships Australia, for giving me the opportunity to share this experience.

Ready to put your talents to use for a life-changing purpose? Visit our Volunteer page now!