She scrimped and saved every extra penny, banked precious vacation time and talked her bosses into unpaid leave.
For Marris Smith, an oncology nurse at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, getting on this ship was going to be a trip of a lifetime.
But not a vacation, make no mistake about that.
Smith, 24, recently completed a two-month volunteer stint in the Republic of Congo aboard the Africa Mercy, operated by Mercy Ships. The international faith-based organization runs the world’s largest charity hospital ships to help fill gaps in the health care systems of impoverished nations.
Smith didn’t know where she would be assigned when she signed up for the mission. It didn’t matter.
“I’ve always known I wanted to do some kind of service with my nursing skills,” says the Lakeland woman. “And though others benefit from it, you’re the one who actually is blessed. I feel like I got so much more out of it.”
A member of Covenant Life Church in Tampa, Smith has a history of altruistic service. She also has made four mission trips to help the needy in Nicaragua.
Russ Holmes, a spokesman for the nonprofit group, says without volunteers such as Smith, Mercy Ships could not exist. For example, some 360 nurses have donated their services on the Congo mission since it docked at the host nation in August.
That’s why Monday’s observance of International Nurses Day — the birthday of the world’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale — has special meaning to the organization.
“We don’t take what they give us for granted, period,” Holmes says. “These are people who have a heart to serve and a willingness to put their skills to work in a place where it really will make a difference.”
And he doesn’t discount the hundreds of other skilled workers that take part in the field work. Among them: surgeons, dentists, health care trainers, teachers, cooks, sailors, engineers and agriculturalists.
“They pay for the pleasure of it,” Holmes says. First, the cost of the airfare to get to the docked ship, and an average of $600 to $700 a month for room and board on the ship.
Smith had to dig deep to fund her excursion. She just graduated from the University of Tampa’s nursing school in 2011. But from the time she got her full-time job at Moffitt, she had her sights set on building up time and saving her money to fund a mission trip.
Mercy Ships requires workers to have at least two years of experience. She applied to join a mission on her second anniversary at Moffitt, “right on the dot.”
The organization appealed to her because the ships are based in countries that rank at the bottom of the World Health Organization’s Human Development Index. Presidents of those nations grant permission for the ship’s entry, provide free dockage and don’t require visas for the volunteers.
Smith served along with 400 other workers from 35 nations, giving her an experience that felt like “going to the United Nations.” Most of her time was spent on the medical surgical floor, helping patients with pre- and post-op care.
As for communicating with patients who didn’t speak English, Mercy Ships employs about 200 local people to help with translation services and other day jobs.
“I’ll never forget the small, one-on-one interactions I had with the patients,” Smith says. “Some came in with medical issues that would never be resolved if we weren’t there. Watching the transformation in their personalities after they had the surgeries was so uplifting.”
Mercy Ships has operated as many as five ships at one time. The organization now has just the one ship based in the West Africa region, with a contract just signed to build a second one by 2017.
Its annual budget is $1 million, with fundraisers working in offices in 16 countries. Because crew and volunteers pay their own way, any money donated to Mercy Ships goes to medical care.
Since it was founded in 1978, Holmes says, Mercy Ships has provided more than $1 billion in services, treating more than 2.42 million.
“We call it one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever love,” he says.
Smith agrees. She already is back to scrimping and saving to fund her next Mercy Ships excursion, wherever that may be.
“Getting out of your comfort zone and doing something meaningful will change lives,” she says. “Especially your own.”