Local nurse gives love and time to those in need

Local nurse gives love and time to those in need

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

Registered nurse Sarah Loving graduated from Fluvanna County High School in 2008 and worked as a nurse in North Carolina before embarking on a journey with a Mercy Ship in West Africa. She said she always used to help with mission work and fundraising through her church so what she is doing now is building on a lifelong interest in helping others.

Loving described the hospital ship as a surgical ship performing orthopedic, orthodontic and ophthalmic (eye) services, burn contracture release, general hernia repair and tumor removal, women’s health and fistula repair, and oral maxillofacial repairs, or cleft lip and palate procedures.

“People think it’s strange but we are self-funded volunteers. We have to pay our own way.” she said. The ships and supplies are funded by various donors. Despite needing to pay to volunteer, there is a long wait list for those who want to help.

Loving usually spends about 10 months onboard then returns home to work and save money for the next mission. She is currently working at the University of Virginia Medical Center to save for the next trip. “There are volunteers as crew on the ship from all over Africa in addition to the other countries, including Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands,” she said. “Volunteers may sign up for one month or for years and sometimes we have too many volunteers.”

She said patients are used to being treated within their tribe when they are sick and never get any better, and sometimes it is too late. They hear from government officials about the ship and often go to seek help but arrive frightened, not knowing what to expect. But Loving said that after some time on the ship, they blossom and form relationships. There are 20 beds to each unit, but the parents will sleep under the beds and they all become friends – 40 people in a ward.

“These are poverty-stricken areas and there is a lack of medical equipment and resources to treat these people,” she said. “They adapt very easily and despite the little they have, they are so loving and they are resilient. The children can recover after surgery with just Tylenol.”

The patients are screened for surgery, then get admitted and may be aboard for weeks or even months. It is during this time that Loving gets to know them. She has seen many heartwarming stories unfold. Baby Paul is one of them.

“Baby Paul arrived with his mother, malnourished, with a cleft lip and palate, and couldn’t latch onto his mother so he wasn’t getting enough nutrition,” she said. The staff put Paul on an infant protocol before surgeries fixed his lip and palate. He was there 10 months. He came in a bewildered, sad-eyed baby and left them a happy joyous one.

She told the story of the birthday cake she made from the limited items in the ship’s store. The chocolate cake with a heart made from M&M’s was given to a woman named Rose who was turning 40.

“She was so appreciative and told us no one had ever celebrated her birthday,” Loving said.

During Christmas, a woman who had post C-section surgery had complications. A CAT scan revealed she would need another surgical intervention – but there were no doctors available to perform the surgery and the staff were reluctant to send her on a long journey to a hospital they felt wasn’t equipped to deal with her problem. As luck would have it, or chalk it up to a Christmas miracle, their anesthesiologist’s mother was visiting for the holidays. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist. Together they scrubbed up, performed the surgery and saved the woman’s life.

Loving works on what they call “plastics” in the burn unit. Another one of her favorite stories concerned a toddler named Confiance, who was shy and timid the first day Loving met him before surgery.

“Many of our plastics patients have been involved in some type of open fire accident. When the skin is burned, the surrounding skin begins to pull together and tighten, called a contracture. This usually results in restriction of movement in that area, as many are left untreated,” she explained.

“Confiance was terrified of us, understandably so. Even though he didn’t seem to respond to my moments of silliness initially, I continued to attempt at gaining his trust.”

One afternoon during outdoor playtime for the patients, she spotted Confiance sitting with his dad, watching everyone else play. So she pushed a big tricycle over and motioned for him to get on. Since he had both hands operated on, wrapped tightly in bandages, it was up to Loving to guide the handlebars. So she had him hold his legs up and pushed as fast as she could.

“The burst of laughter from this child was beautiful,” she said. “I had to actually stop and check to make sure it was in fact laughter and not crying. Even though my quads were on fire and my scrubs drenched in sweat, those sweet giggles were worth every push. Confiance has blossomed into such a confident kid – he’s so outgoing and playful with us now. And his name, Confiance, means trust.”

As she thinks about leaving Africa and the ship, the word bittersweet comes to her mind. “The solid relationships and lifelong friendships I’ve developed with the patients and crew will forever be engrained in my heart,” she said. “I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some of the most compassionate and selfless people from all over the world. It’s been such a positive environment and really improved efficiency in our work and purpose. I’m stoked to be home with my family, but my heart aches for the family I leave behind.”

One would imagine language being a problem in communicating but Loving says language barriers don’t prevent relationships from forming.
“Hugging and holding the children is a love language in itself,” she said. “It’s incredible how much care and love you can show for others through nursing without speaking. More smiles than words were exchanged this past week.”

Her next trip is to Togo. Everyone tells her how brave and strong she for doing this, but she doesn’t see it that way. Rather, she sees it as her calling.
“Honestly, I’m not really very brave and I’m not really that strong. I’m not doing anything spectacular,” she said. “I am simply doing what God has called me to do as a person who follows him.”

If anyone would like to support Loving in her fundraising efforts or to learn more about purchasing coffee or a unique T-shirt, contact her at scc7kp@virginia.edu. A portion also goes toward providing clean water.

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