Bronte's mis­sion

Monthly Chronicle - - Front Page - Jenny Bar­lass

Meet the Ep­ping nurse help­ing sick kids on a hos­pi­tal ship in Cen­tral Africa

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 yearold 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 post­op­er­a­tive 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 work­ing 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.”

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