Royal Palm nurse changes lives by volunteering in Africa

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ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jenny Mullis, 27, had a great job, one she loved.

She made enough money as a pediatric oncology nurse at a St. Petersburg hospital to live well and pay off her student loans from Palm Beach Atlantic University's nursing program.

Yet, something didn't feel right. Mullis was restless.

"Do something more," an inner voice demanded.

"I decided to do something for me," she said.

Which meant doing something for others.

Last summer, Mullis said good-bye to her family and friends and flew to Madagascar, where diseases Americans haven't seen in more than a century still ravage and sometimes kill children.

Where nearly non-existent medical care means benign facial tumors grow so large they consume faces, making sufferers outcasts from their villages. Where a baby born with an easily-repaired cleft lip or palate might be left to die.

Mullis signed on for a job that did not pay her. In fact, she had to pay her own way to the other side of the world as well as about $600 for monthly room and board — in which she lived in a room with five other nurses sharing one tiny bathroom.

She loved it.

So much that late last month, she headed back for another volunteer year on Africa Mercy, a Christian medical charity that is the world's largest civilian hospital ship.

Medical missionary work has appealed to Mullis since college.

"I went on mission trips to Ukraine and Uganda," said Mullis, from her parents' Royal Palm Beach home, where she spent much of her two-month home leave this summer. "I was changed by those short trips. Mercy Ships was on my radar for a while since I've always felt a call to reach those who can't help themselves."

Mullis was assigned to the orthopedic ward. Like anyone accustomed to access to Western medical care, she was shocked at the conditions of the people who came for help.

"They told us not to look at the deformity, to look into the patient's eyes," said Mullis.

A woman in her 20s came in with a piece of cloth covering her face where an infection had eaten away her cheek and part of her eye. In her traditional society, the shy and withdrawn woman was shunned, would never marry or have a job to support herself.

The Mercy Ships surgical team conducted multiple skin grafts over several months, filling in the holes caused by the infection.

"She was one of my biggest transformations," said Mullis. "After, she came out of her shell. She became so affectionate. She still looked different but not so much she couldn't rejoin her society."

Mullis was also part of a team that worked with 4-year-old Sasiline, who fell into boiling water after tripping over a cooking fire.

"The contracted scar had turned her right hand into a backward-facing frozen fist," said Mullis.

Surgeons conducted a complex series of surgeries to release her frozen fingers and allow her elbow to move. After, there were months of physical therapy.

"Her future is changed by what we did," said Mullis. "She may be part of her village again, get married, have a future that before would have been impossible."

Child marriage is prevalent in Madagascar, with the accompanying number of obstetric fistulas in young mothers with long, obstructed labor.

"Some were as young as 12 and 13," said Mullis.

Fistulas are holes in the perineum that constantly leak urine and feces. The young women are often rejected by their husbands and families.

Working with a group called Freedom from Fistula, the ship treated about 300 women, then helped establish a fistula clinic on land.

Africa Mercy's latest stop is off the coast of Benin, a small French-speaking country in West Africa. Mullis has been promoted to head ward nurse in the ship's orthopedic department, which treats mostly children.

"Pediatrics is my heart," she said.

For 38 years, Mercy Ships have been providing surgeries for people with no other access to medical care. The charity hopes to have another ship working in Africa by 2018.

Africa Mercy carries about 400 volunteers, most of them medical staff, representing nearly 40 nationalities.

"We have people from all walks of life and all age groups on board," said Russell Holmes, Mercy Ships director of development. "From an 18-year-old taking a gap year, to housekeeping and dining room staff, to volunteers with a marine background to help run the ship."

The ship is a floating village, with 30 families and a school for the approximately 50 children on board.

In each country, they hire 200 or so paid local workers, including medical assistants and translators who also advise Westerners on local customs and culture.

When the ship leaves, the training stays behind, improving the country's medical care.

The ship goes to only politically stable countries where they're invited by the country's president.

The charity attracts Christian volunteers, such as Mullis, who attended Berean Christian School and PBAU, a West Palm Beach Christian university, but faith isn't a prerequisite for either patients or volunteers. Nor does the crew evangelize.

"We don't push anyone to go to a service. We're here because we feel God has called us to this," Mullis said.

But like other volunteers, Mullis depends on donations to fund her work.

"I would like to keep going as long as I can," she said. "I really love it."


Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post,

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