Epping nurse’s epic African quest

Ward nurse Bronte Blundell-Gray portrait on the dock by the bow
Jenny Barlass

Her life could have been so much easier. But that’s not how Epping nurse Bronte Blundell-Gray wanted it.

Last month this remarkable 24 year-old returned home to her immaculate Epping flat from steamy, chaotic Central Africa after living and working on board the world’s largest civilian hospital ship. Not only that, she didn’t get paid for it, even deliberately planning it so she celebrated her birthday while on board.

Bronte swapped her RN job on the orthopaedic ward of The Children’s Hospital at Westmead for the volunteer role, raising some of the $4000 needed for the trip. Once the money was raised, she spent two months working as a post-operative paediatric ward nurse on the general surgery ward of the Africa Mercy ship docked in the port city of Douala in Cameroon’s Gulf of Guinea.

It was a trip that both confronted and reaffirmed her belief in the sanctity and value of life, and changed her perspectives.

The first surprise was life on board: air conditioning, great food shipped over from the Netherlands, non-stop wifi and electricity, and hot and cold running water.

That said, the risks were not inconsiderable. Apart from health risks like malaria and typhoid, she daily faced the risk of becoming HIV infected as so many African patients have the virus. Then there were the personal dangers involved in walking around Douala.

Throw in 98% humidity outside the ship and Cameroon’s unstable political climate and you have to ask: why go?

“I wanted to see Africa since I was a child,” explains Bronte. “My mother had seen the program The Surgery Ship on SBS, and told me about the Africa Mercy ship.”

That ignited the spark in her – but she then faced a two year period where had to upskill by working in four specialist units at Westmead to medically qualify, plus an exhaustive 14 month application process. Five flights and 35 hours in the air later, Bronte finally set foot on the ship.

“I knew nothing of the country but that they must be in dire need of access to medical assistance, and that was enough for me.”

Cameroon was facing turbulence with rebel forces fighting on the border with Chad in the north of the country. And while Douala has its own hospital, there’s no regular supply of either electricity or clean running water so the hospital ship was there to perform the surgical miracles the local medical teams were unable to – providing almost 4,000 thousand life-changing surgeries on board and providing health care training to local medical professionals.

Bronte treated 400 patients worked in post-operative care in the time she was there, ranging in age from three months to 59. “We see numerous specialties and surgeries on the ward including hernia repairs, cataract surgeries, burn/plastics surgeries, lipoma removals, cleft lip repairs and women’s fistula repairs.

“What’s considered a minor condition at home with a quick and easy fix, is instead a lifelong burden for Cameroonians. We’ve had many patients blind due to bilateral cataracts, a surgery which takes three to five minutes to repair. Women have presented with vaginal fistulas as a result of birth complications, some left untreated for three decades causing these women to be outcast from their communities. This surgery doesn’t even require a general anaesthetic and can take less than an hour. What we’re doing is so simple, but has such a great impact on the lives of our patients.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was the language barrier. There are 250 Cameroon dialects, the main one in Douala being Fulfulde. ”I often found it hard to connect with patients who don’t speak English. Sometimes we would have to use a chain of four people to translate from one dialect into the next to finally understand the patient or the other way.”

Highlights? “Seeing the worried faces of pre-operative patients transform into big wide smiles after their operations. Watching the patients after cataract surgery take off their eye patches and see for the very first time! Shapes, colours, their parents!

“This is so special, beyond words,” says Bronte, clearly moved by the experience.

“Not to mention the lifelong friendships made with people from all over the world, who’ve come together with a common purpose, to provide hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.”

While the ship had plenty to keep her busy with movie nights, gyms, hairdresser and thrice weekly assemblies for this floating medical fraternity, Bronte frequently ventured onto land to sample life outside the air conditioned comfort.

“In my downtime, I explored different markets in Douala and finding nice places to eat dinner. I’ve been running in the port with other crew members for fitness and going on excursions to spend more time with the locals.

“This experience takes you out of your comfort zone, flies you to the other side of the world, and drops you on a boat. And then they say swim. Not many people can say they’ve had that pleasure.”

She said it was a privilege to experience the Cameroonian culture. “As much as I come to Africa to change lives, I know that my life will never be the same after being surrounded by such beautiful people.”

What has the experience taught her? “You can’t come home from a country like Cameroon and then complain about the table at your café in Sydney being wobbly. This experience opens your eyes to a world where people actually have it tougher than you ever thought possible, but still manage to smile. I’m grateful beyond words for this experience.”

While Bronte missed friends and family, she has a plan. While she returns this week to her orthopaedic nursing job at Westmead, a job they’d  kept open, her next African mission – to Senegal in 2019 – will likely be with her partner, a gardener who she hopes will find on board deck work.

“I’ll always come back to Africa. It stole my heart the very first time I came here. Next time it will be for longer.”

About Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships delivers free, world-class health care services and sustainable aid to the developing world. Since 1978 Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than $1.3 billion, with more than 2.56 million direct beneficiaries. Each year, more than 1,200 volunteers from 40 nations – surgeons, dentists, nurses, health care trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists – all donate their time and skills. www.mercyships.org.au To make a donation call on 1300 739 899.

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