Local RN assists in surgery on hospital ship in Cameroon

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Catherine Fultz, surgical registered nurse at Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital, is about to board the Africa Mercy, one of four nautical hospitals commissioned by the Mercy Ships organization. Fultz served on the Africa Mercy in Cameroon from Jan. 28 to Feb. 10.

LEWISTOWN — After returning from a two-week mission trip on the Africa Mercy in Cameroon, Catherine Fultz, a surgical registered nurse at Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital, marveled at the differences between the two worlds.

“Everybody there was considered important,” from the custodians to the attending physician, Fultz said, adding that she’ll never forget a surgeon emphasizing the importance of the galley crew during a staff dinner. “To have that importance be known,” she said, “made [us] feel like a community.”

Fultz learned about the opportunity to serve the Mercy Ships organization from a friend in the Dominican Republic. “I’ve always been passionate about helping others,” said Fultz, whose interest in Mercy Ships was sparked because of the opportunity to work in her specialized field, surgery.

Fultz said that so many people die around the world because of the lack of or quality of surgical care. According to the Mercy Ships website, “In low-income countries, it is estimated that 85 percent of children need treatment for a surgical condition before the age of 15. Lack of treatment or a sometimes simple surgical solution often leads to complications, lifelong disability or death.”

In June 2016, Fultz attended a training to learn all she needed to know about the process, then applied in January 2017 for an assignment that would fall between November 2017 to May 2018. She was notified in June 2017 that she would be in Cameroon for two weeks in 2018, leaving Jan. 28 and returning Feb. 10.

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The Africa Mercy operating room awaits the next surgery.

Months after getting immunized and obtaining her visa, Fultz found herself waiting in the airport police office at Doula International Airport for nearly two hours, as customs verified her reason for visiting Cameroon. Eventually, representatives from Mercy Ships picked her up and took her to the ship for orientation, after which she was led to her eight-berth, two-bathroom cabin, where she had one of the top bunks stacked just too high for her to sit upright.

On her first full day onboard, Fultz attended the first of four community meetings, participated in a second orientation about rules and logistics, then spent the rest of her workday observing cataract surgeries.

Though she had many positive experiences on board, one memory Fultz fondly recalled was walking into a local shop, where the shopworker noticed the Mercy Ships badge hanging on the shirt of one of her coworkers. “Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed ‘Mercy Ships?’ Through the translator, she told us how she had heard about the ship, what we were doing and about how grateful she was for what we were doing for ‘so many Cameroonians.’ Out of her gratitude and generosity, she gave each of us a small gift from the shop. It was amazingly humbling experience. I was such a small part of a great good and receiving her gratitude on behalf of the ship was a reminder of how much bigger than me this whole trip was.”

The worst experience for Fultz was messing up a task that was considered important, though her error had no lasting repercussions. Despite her misdeed, Fultz said “everybody was really gracious.” Fultz also appreciated all of the “cultures coming together” and that every member of the crew “showed up ready and willing to learn” from each other. Ultimately, Fultz said, it was “very fulfilling to see patients being thankful to know that they can be treated and resume normal life soon after.”

Now that she’s stateside, Fultz said her experiences with Mercy Ships caused her to be more confident in her duties. “The need for boldness is emphasized there,” said Fultz, who claimed timidness before making the journey. Though happy to be home, Fultz plans to serve on the Africa Mercy again next year, in Guinea. Fultz also believes others should volunteer. “I really hope more people decide to go,” Fultz said. “There are a lot of opportunities.”

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Catherine Fultz takes a coffee break aboard the Africa Mercy.

According to the Mercy Ships website, “Volunteers from over 49 nations have served onboard Africa Mercy, which was acquired in 1999 and built specifically for the Mercy Ships mission.” The ship has a crew capacity of 474 and is scheduled to leave Cameroon in June.