Providing Healthcare and Sharing God’s Love in Africa
Marris Smith knew from an early age that she wanted a career in the medical field. She even remembers having to explain to her fifth grade class what it meant to be an OB-GYN. As a high school student, Marris decided to pursue a career in nursing. So when she graduated from LCS in 2007, she went to the University of Tampa where she earned her BS in Nursing in 2011. She completed her final clinical rotation at Moffitt Cancer Center and has been employed with Moffitt ever since.
But you won’t find Marris treating patients at Moffitt Cancer Center right now; in fact, you won’t find Marris unless you visit her hospital ship – the Africa Mercy – docked in Madagascar off the coast of Mozambique in east Africa.
Marris first heard about Mercy Ships – a global charity that operates a fleet of hospital ships in some of the poorest parts of the world – during high school. She applied on the two-year anniversary of becoming a nurse and is now on her second trip with the organization.
About Mercy Ships and the Africa Mercy
Mercy Ships is an international, faith-based organization that provides free healthcare throughout the world. It was founded in 1978 by Don Stephens, who dreamed of using ocean liners as hospital ships to care for the poor. The fleet of medical vessels has served 2.42 million direct medical beneficiaries since its founding, visiting ports in 56 of the poorest nations including Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo and more.
Mercy Ships has performed more than 67,000 operations such as cleft lip and palate repair, cataract removal, orthopedic procedures, plastic
surgery, obstetric fistula repair and more. They have treated 572,000 patients in village clinics and performed more than 305,000 dental procedures. The organization also trains local teachers and professionals in specific areas of expertise including anesthesiology, midwifery, sterilization and more.
In addition to medical procedures, Mercy Ships has completed more than 1,100 community development projects focusing on water, sanitation, education, agriculture and infrastructure development.
The Africa Mercy ship, which Marris serves on, is the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship and is dedicated to the continent of Africa. Launched in 2007, this 16,500-ton ship features five operating rooms and 82 patient beds. It hosts an average crew of 450 at a time.
Her Years at Lakeland Christian
Marris was an active student during her time at LCS. She played in the band and performed in musicals and plays. She was a soccer player and served on the student council. She was also a member of several organizations including National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and more. These activities and a close-knit group of friends have given Marris many fond memories, but it was also the influence of many teachers who were instrumental in preparing her for life after high school.
“Mr. Joe DeRosa, Mrs. Kathy Johnson and Mr. Chuck Fulton all taught me to develop the gifts that God had given me. They also taught me to love music, the importance of dedication and how to strive for excellence,” Marris said.
“I first realized that Mr. Stabler would have a big impact in my life when he unintentionally ended up with a ninth grade Bible class made up entirely of girls! He was very patient with us and utilized the situation well, engaging us in conversation about certain biblical application points in ways that probably wouldn’t have taken place had there been guys in the class. To date, it’s still one of my favorite classes!”
“Mr. Musick, Mrs. Oncu, the Livesays … can I keep going? I could list everyone! All of the teachers at LCS really did have a great impact on my life and my family as a whole – greater than I think they even realize.”
One specific area where Marris credits Lakeland Christian for preparing her for the future is in the emphasis on service.
“It started at a young age with tangible ways of serving such as singing at local nursing homes,
then Work-A-Thon and eventually mission trips and community service requirements in high school. I also remember countless missionaries and local charities sharing in chapel. It seemed at every turn, we were being encouraged to be the hands and feet of Jesus. This is something I have carried on into college and beyond.”
Her College Years and the Start of Her Career
During her four years at the University of Tampa, Marris was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and with a local church in downtown Tampa. She served on Student Government and in the Student Nursing Association. Early in her college career, Marris even rowed on the UT Crew team.
She planned to pursue pediatric nursing after graduation, but a nursing professor encouraged her in another direction.
“I ended up falling in love with the oncology field and a few patients with cancer who I met throughout my clinical rotations. One of my professors suggested that I apply for my final clinical rotation at Moffitt Cancer Center, and I have worked there for the past three years.”
Since her graduation, Marris has worked as a registered nurse on the Medical-Surgical, Hematology/Oncology and Chemotherapy units at Moffitt.
Her First Trip on the Africa Mercy
While researching the organization, Marris learned that she needed two years of nursing experience before being able to apply to serve with Mercy Ships. After an extensive application process and many immunization requirements, her application was approved in 2013, and she received her first two-month assignment for service in early 2014.
Marris’ first trip on the Africa Mercy was to the Republic of Congo. She served as a ward nurse and performed typical duties of a floor nurse – prepping for surgery, monitoring patient recovery, addressing complications, checking vital signs, charting, changing dressings, managing drains, communicating with the surgical team, giving medications and teaching exercises.
“There was much that was different than typical ‘westernized nursing’ on the Africa Mercy,” Marris said. “All of the patients are in one large room – 20 patients plus their caregivers who slept under the patients’ beds. Free time included playing games with the patients on the floor such as Jenga or Connect Four. Communication was through translators. There was a whole lot of laughter and much prayer.”
Marris worked eight-hour shifts five days a week with alternating weekends off. The nurses rotated between day, evening and night shifts.
“During the shift change, before we would give ‘report’ or hand-off, we would pray together as a group over our patients. All the nurses, translators and sometimes even the patients would join it. It was the sweetest part of my day.”
Her Second Trip on the Africa Mercy
After her first trip, Marris returned home and resumed her duties as a registered nurse at Moffitt. Knowing that she was passionate about serving again but challenged by the unclear logistics of returning for a longer field service – and knowing how hard it would be to spend so much time away from her family – Marris spent much time in prayer before committing to another trip on the Africa Mercy.
“I came to the conclusion (with the help of Psalm 33:13-15, 20-22) that God himself has knit together my heart and prepared me for this role, and because of the freedom I have through Christ, I can bring this hope to others as well! He joins me in this excitement and has promised to be with me every step of the way.”
Currently, Marris is working on a 10-month field service in Madagascar. The trip was originally scheduled to leave for Benin in August of 2014, but the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa postponed her trip until mid-October and forced a location change. The last-minute change of plans and waiting on word of her assignment was challenging for Marris, but also a teaching experience for her.
“It taught me to just live day by day, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I am learning how to trust God in ways I have not yet learned – with finances, my health and even my future.”
For this service, Marris is part of the Palliative Care Team and travels to homes of patients to provide care rather than on the ship’s inpatient unit.
“When Mercy Ships screens for potential patients, many come out of the screening site who cannot benefit from the surgeries offered. Either it is an inoperable ailment or a chronic condition. This is where the Palliative Care Team comes in,” Marris said. “This team is able to partner with local organizations to provide symptom management and sometimes end-of-life care, community resources and, most importantly, hope in Christ.”
“The goal of our team is to show the love of Christ to people who are isolated, hopeless and fearful because of a terminal illness and to extend support to the family of the terminally ill person.”
The Greatest Rewards
Serving abroad, experiencing language barriers, witnessing loss and being away from home for months can all be difficult, but there are big rewards and joyful moments that make the challenges worth it for Marris.
“The biggest rewards I received while a part of
Mercy Ships have been the small moments shared
with patients. Some of these special moments
include singing to God and dancing in the ward
services, praying with them before surgery and after
recovery, and sharing many laughs despite
our language barrier.”
“When I was working on the ward, it was such a blessing to see the transformation of a patient. Some were admitted with severe burn contractures, rendering a part of their body nonfunctional and severely deformed. These patients would leave smiling, happy and freely moving again. It seems so simple, but it was a joy to be a part of their transformation!”
“Over the days and weeks of their recovery, patients came to realize that they were loved by us and, more importantly, they were treasured by God. It became so tangible to these men, women and children that God has loved them all along, in whatever state they were in. But he offered restoration to them – both physically and spiritually.”
The Influence of Her LCS Education
The mission of Lakeland Christian School is to educate students in the light of God’s word to equip them for a lifetime of learning, leadership, service and worship. For Marris, it is easy to see how this mission has played out in her life.
“I remember in Dr. Sligh’s senior Bible class that we talked about our biblical worldview – how it was a framework rather than ‘rose-colored lenses’ through which to view the world. This means that we can learn as much as possible about the world and others, knowing how to interpret it all by what God says in His word. This prepared me for life after high school, including college and the working/adult world as well.”
“I can look back on my time spent at LCS and see how the community and curriculum have been hugely instrumental in shaping who I am today. The mission of LCS sums up how I view my life and the world around me. It has equipped me to know how to use God’s word to govern my decision-making in all areas of life, including the day-to-day. In light of what God says in His word and His great love for us, I am motived and equipped to serve, love, grow and lead in my workplace, family, church and community.”
You can keep up to date with Marris as she serves on the Africa Mercy by visiting her blog at http://medium.com/@marrissmith/. To learn more about the Mercy Ships organization, visit www.mercyships.org.