ROCKFORD, Ill. -- For the past three years, Chelsi Clauson has spent her days helping hospital patients through their most trying medical moments.
But it was on a ship, on the other side of the world, where she truly realized what it means to be a nurse.
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"I could see the many opportunities that medicine and nursing have," Clauson said. "It reaffirmed how a nurse can touch a person's life."
Clauson headed to the west coast of Africa recently and spent two months volunteering on the nonprofit Mercy Ship. Aboard the docked ship, Africans who otherwise couldn't afford or have access to medical care were given free surgeries and treatments. The ship was staffed by hundreds of volunteers just like Clauson, who took time from their medical careers to give their expertise to strangers in need.
"I saw a lot of gratitude," Clauson said. "These patients had never been in a hospital before and were grateful for these life-changing surgeries."
Most of the treatments were ones that would be readily available in the United States. But in Africa, where Clauson said there are two doctors for every 100,000 people, such procedures are simply out of reach. They included birth defects, such as cleft palates and bow legs, or things like broken bones that were never reset. Hernias were repaired, tumors removed and burn victims given plastic surgery.
A radio announcement went out throughout the country about the Mercy Ship, bringing a mass of 3,000 people who were seeking medical care. After they were screened, some were sent away with medication or medical advice while others were scheduled to board the ship for surgery.
Clauson said that, in absence of western medicine, she heard many stories of witch doctors and a deep belief that these ailments were spiritual curses. She recalled that parents were told to bury their child alive if he was born with a cleft palate, as a way of releasing the evil spirit.
"Not only do parents have to live with this (birth defect), but they live in a society telling them to bury their child," Clauson said.
For most patients, recovery and rehabilitation were long and they stayed on the ship for the full duration. It was often unrealistic to expect people in a cast to go back to a small village where they needed their full physical abilities to survive.
In six surgical rooms, medical staff performed about 10 surgeries a day. Working eight-hour shifts, Clauson cared primarily for eight pediatric patients at a time. Generally, the children had a parent on the ship with them who slept beneath the hospital bed for weeks at a time.
One of her daily tasks included the chance to let her hair down with her patients.
"A big part of our day was taking these kids outside to play," Clauson said. "It's a huge part of their healing. Play is good medicine for those kids."
It's quite a difference from the cardiac unit where she works at SwedishAmerican Hospital. There, she works 12-hour shifts taking care of four adult patients at a time. There, she has vast resources at her fingertips, including plenty of equipment and expertise.
Working with pediatric and orthopedic patients, "I didn't have a whole lot of experience, but they used whatever gifts we had and taught us what we needed to know," Clauson said.
For many patients, life before surgery was fairly isolating. Either they couldn't physically function normally in society, or they were teased for their ailment. Clauson knew she was sending patients back into the world who were not just physically stronger but ready to embrace a healthier emotional and social life.
"We were really restoring that part of their lives, too," Clauson said.
Mercy Ships is a worldwide charity that dates to 1978. The group has sent ships to developing countries around the world. The Africa Mercy Ship has a crew from 30 countries and beds for 78 patients at one time.
Clauson learned of Mercy Ships while still a student at Olivet Nazarene University. She wanted to volunteer during college but was required to have two years of on-the-job experience first. So she took a job with SwedishAmerican, and as soon as she logged the two years, Clauson sent in her application.
"It's a Christian organization that has done great things and had a really big impact, so I wanted to get involved," she said. "The main thing is just the impact, how they are able to go to these third-world countries and provide modern services to a country that has none of that."
Clauson was eager to be a part of the mission, to help people and "provide hope in their lives, to open my eyes to things we don't see here in America," she said.
Even though it was volunteer work, Clauson's time on the Mercy Ship didn't come without pay: It just wasn't in the form of money. The best part, she said, was "bringing hope and healing to the poor and forgotten.
"Just being Jesus' hands and feet to these people," Clauson said. "They weren't expected to give anything in return, just to receive this awesome gift."
Clauson said she was fortunate that her employer gave her time off so that she could spend the two months in Africa. She wasn't sure what to expect when she approached her boss, who was new to the job, to ask for the time off.
"When she told me what it was, I couldn't say no," said Laura Schaffer, manager of the cardiac surveillance unit. "Their need was so much greater than my need here."
And in the end, Clauson said, her time in Africa has made her a better nurse.
"It taught me the element of sacrificing my needs for other people's needs," she said.
Today, Clauson's patients at SwedishAmerican are the recipients of her moments and memories in Africa.
"I can't stop talking about it," Clauson smiled. "They love to hear my stories."