Since 1978, global charity Mercy Ships has operated a fleet of hospital ships in developing nations around the world. In 2015, inspired in part by family, Elizabeth Harter answered the call to board one of those ships—the Africa Mercy—as a ward nurse educator and bedside nurse. Committed to serve overseas for three years, she has used Skype to keep in touch with the friends and family that inspire, encourage, and support her.
Elizabeth first heard about Mercy Ships while studying nursing at university—and the seed was planted. Fast forward to graduation from Purdue University, and after having gained some nursing experience in a hospital, she decided to finally consider going on an overseas mission. “My grandparents and aunt and uncle have spent many years of their lives doing overseas missions,” she says. “I think their devotion to loving people drew me to do volunteer work.” While researching Mercy Ships further, she found herself blown away by the positive impact they made—and the impact she could make.
Now, as one of two ward nurse educators on the Africa Mercy, Elizabeth is making that impact felt. She helps orient and train volunteers that come aboard. “I am their first point of contact on board, and kind of the first face of Mercy Ships to them, so it is a big responsibility to be open, kind, and welcoming,” she says. “I love it, though, because it kind of forces me to continue to put myself out there and meet new people. This hospital is very unique in that it has influences from all over the world, and I get to be the first person to show that to the oncoming nurses. It is quite a privilege.”
Part of what makes Elizabeth so kind and welcoming to all the volunteers she meets is that the Africa Mercy has become a home away from home, and because she keeps in contact with friends and family for emotional and spiritual support. “I miss good coffee. I miss Mexican food, especially chips and salsa. And of course, I miss my family and friends. The ship provides a lot of first world amenities, though, so it makes it a lot easier to be away from home.” And Skype makes is easier to stay connected to her home across the ocean.
Elizabeth tries to talk with her family at least once a week on Skype. Due to the time difference between her and her family, in Nashville, Tennessee, she usually chats with them on the weekends for about an hour or two. “They are so supportive of me and have given me so much encouragement in what I’m doing here with Mercy Ships,” she says. “They love hearing stories about my patients and about my adventures in the various countries I have been to with Mercy Ships.” She says her day-to-day experiences can at times be hard to explain, but her parents do their best to ask the right questions and make sure she’s doing well. It also helps that she can talk with them virtually face to face—and often more than one face at a time! As she puts it, “I like that you can have multiple people on one Skype call. That way my whole family can talk together!”
Elizabeth has shared many great experiences with her family. One of the most special encounters was with a small child whose life was completely changed after being caught in a house fire. Left with severe burns on her neck and torso, and contractures to her arms, she underwent a major surgery aboard the ship, followed by a long recovery. “Even though she had been through so much, this child was full of life and energy just as any other child,” says Elizabeth. “With her burn contracture release surgery, she was finally able to move about like other children. She left an impression on so many of the crew.”
“She also left an impression on our walls,” Elizabeth goes on to say, “after she took to drawing, with a crayon, lovely scribbles all over the wall by her bed. The crayon was erasable, but she is not. She was sweet, sassy, and full of life. I was her nurse several times and still think of her and her mama often.”
Sharing stories like this one with her family, Elizabeth is able to continue the important work she does with the necessary energy, empathy, and kindness she wants to convey—as well as inspire loved ones back in Tennessee. Skype keeps her connected and she continues to transform lives.
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