Photo courtesy of Katie Keegan

From Bridle Trails to Madagascar | Bellevue nurse helps change lives aboard medical ship

It took three days, a nine-hour bus trip, thousands of dollars out of her own pocket and every scrap of vacation time she had for Bridle Trails resident Jennifer DeVault to travel to a ship off the shore of Madagascar on which she and others change lives. But the result was worth the journey, she said.

It took three days, a nine-hour bus trip, thousands of dollars out of her own pocket and every scrap of vacation time she had for Bridle Trails resident Jennifer DeVault to travel to a ship off the shore of Madagascar on which she and others change lives. But the result was worth the journey, she said.

“I’m thrilled to do this,” she said. “This is kind of everything I dreamed of doing when I went to nursing school.”

An OR nurse at Swedish Medical Center, DeVault just returned from spending two weeks volunteering aboard the Mercy Ship, a floating hospital run entirely by volunteers and donations that has provided over $1 billion in free services to more than 2.5 million children and adults since 1978.

DeVault has been doing volunteer medical work since 1995, starting with Operation Smile, a medical charity that provides free cleft lip, palate and other facial surgeries for children. Her work increased after the death of her husband eight years ago, and she now uses nearly all of her vacation time on volunteer trips.

Altogether, she has completed traveled to provide free medical care 24 times.

“I’ve always wanted to do work that would change lives, and I have the skills to do it this way,” she said.

While on one of her Operation Smile trips, DeVault met a doctor who also volunteered with the Mercy Ships. Doctors, nurses, dentists and others from around 40 different countries work aboard the Mercy Ship at any one time. Some come and go, while others like Dr. Gary Parker spend many, many years on the ship. Parker even met his wife and is raising his children on board the vessel.

The Mercy Ship serves a wide range of needs, including dental work, orthopedic, eye care, reconstructive, mental health and general surgeries. Depending on what kind of surgeries she was assisting in, DeVault performed between 20 and 25 procedures during her most recent visit.

The volunteers not only perform surgeries, but are also on call 24/7 to give blood, as the ship has no blood bank.

The medical teams see a wide array of problems agitated by poor medical care options. As a result of poor dental practices, DeVault has seen people board the boat with cavities that have developed into tumors. Due to the inability to get chemotherapy or radiation, women with breast cancer have come to the ship with tumors eroding their skin.

But one of the most important services the Mercy Ship performs, DeVault said, are to repair obstetric fistulas, or a small hole between the birth canal and bladder as a result of prolonged, obstructed labor without appropriate medical care that leads to a leaking of urine or feces.

In many African countries, childbirth is extremely dangerous and nearly half of the people on the continent have no access to a hospital or doctor. As a result, around 200 women daily experience difficult labor in which the baby usually dies and the mother develops a fistula and is obstracized for it.

But on the Mercy Ship, this women can start anew.

Every time one of these women leaves after her surgery, the ship holds a “dress ceremony” during which she is made up in a new dress, hat and makeup to make her feel special.

“Trying to put yourself into their place is overwhelming…We basically bring back hope to these women’s lives, and that’s the greatest gift,” DeVault said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that DeVault was volunteering in Benin. She will be working in Benin on her next trip. The Reporter regrets the error.

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