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 around the world die every year from conditions requiring surgical care.

It’s that unmet need that motivated Katie Henderson, a 25-year-old paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) nurse, to set sail with Mercy Ships.

“I just think that it should not matter where you come from, where you live, or how much money you have,” she said. “If there’s a treatment, you should be able to get it.”

From her early days in Nairn, Scotland, Katie always knew she 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.”

Changing Plans

Katie completed a nursing degree and went to work as an intensive care nurse at the world-renowned children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

After three years, in 2020, she decided to take a gap year to travel. Then, the pandemic struck.

With all her travel plans in tatters, she remembered a friend who had talked about Mercy Ships. She decided to apply – but while she waited, there was work to be done.

Throughout the pandemic Katie worked in COVID-19 intensive care units in London. During that time, she felt more aware than ever that she was part of a bigger picture.

“The whole world was battling the same thing and we were all struggling,” she said. “It was probably the first time that all nurses internationally combined to tackle one thing on such a scale.”

Eventually, her mission shifted again. She learned she’d been accepted to join Mercy Ships. It was time to go.

An International Experience

When Katie arrived in Senegal in February, she found herself surrounded by others with the same vision. They came from all over the world.

“There’s American nurses, Colombian nurses, nurses from Germany, Sweden, France,” she said. “There’s day crew who are local to Senegal and other African crew from Ghana, Sierra Leone, among others.”

The Africa Mercy had just returned to Dakar, and Katie helped to prepare for the first patient. As she waited to meet Sokhna, a young woman in her 20s, Katie was nervous. Working with adults, with the added challenge of a language barrier, was outside her comfort zone.

“With children you can play with toys, and it puts them at ease, but I was worried about forming a bond with adults,” she said.

But Katie connected quickly with Sokhna, who had spent her life living with a cleft palate.

“She was special for so many reasons,” Katie said. “She had come 14 hours for surgery, she had never been out of her hometown. It was her first time seeing the sea, being on a ship.”

Katie did everything she could to make Sokhna feel at home as she went through surgery and recovery. “She was in post-op for the next two to three days, and I kept seeing her smiling and seeing her happy,” Katie said. “She kept holding the mirror to her face and seeing what her face looked like now.”

‘No Bigger Joy’

Katie felt uplifted as she sent Sokhna home to her one-year-old. But she still finds the most joy in working with children.

“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,” she said. “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.”

As she’s served on the Africa Mercy, Katie has been struck by the hope and gratitude she’s witnessed.

“It’s not that people at home are not grateful,” she said. “But here it is so overwhelming, because if we were not here – this would not happen.”

The joy Katie found on board prompted her to extend her service from three months to six. “Pretty much from the moment I got here I was sad about leaving,” she said. “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!”

Mercy Ships needs your unique gifts and talents! Whether you’re a nurse, an engineer, or want to serve anywhere from the dining room to the café, find out how you can Make Your Mark like Katie: