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'Nursing is nursing the world over'

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Ophthalmic nurse Lorraine Montgomery provides eye care in developing countries from on board a ship.

Lorraine Montgomery had always thought about becoming a nurse, but life got in her way. She was married at 19 and had two sons by 25. But family and friends encouraged her to pursue nursing and she qualified in September 1996.

“A lot of my training was done on the surgical wards, and I liked that you build up a relationship with the patient,” says Ms Montgomery.

Her first job was as a junior staff nurse on an eye ward. “I loved taking the dressing off a patient’s eyes after they had surgery. Seeing the look on their faces when they could see again was brilliant.”

Ms Montgomery’s husband is a member of the Rotary Club, which is a major sponsor of the charity Mercy Ships, which takes nurses, doctors, water engineers and agriculturalists to some of the world’s poorest countries to offer their services free of charge.

“I heard they were looking for an ophthalmic nurse, so I applied the year of my 50th,” she says.

The potential for short tours on the ship appealed to Ms Montgomery, who still works full time at Milton Keynes Hospital Foundation Trust. She took a holiday and went to Sierra Leone for three weeks to volunteer in May 2011: “I flew to Brussels first and met lots of others who were going out to volunteer.”

Getting to Sierra Leone was easy, she says: “We had to take a water taxi out to the ship. I had to jump into it. A little down the river, the white ship began to appear and stuck out against the black night. It was awe inspiring.”

Adjusting to life on the ship was difficult at first. “When you get on a ship with 450 other people in another country, you do feel alone,” she says. But once on the ship, she made friends for life. “We keep in touch and meet up once or twice a year. We ask each other for help with medical problems. It’s helpful to get perspectives from different areas of practice.”

The ship operates mostly using the US medical system, and Ms Montgomery had to get used to different drug names.

“But nursing is nursing the world over,” she says. “Before I went, I was expecting it to have facilities that were similar to those at home, but some of the equipment on board was better.”

Before the ship goes to provide aid, it sends a team into the country to screen patients for care. They go to isolated communities in search of people needing help.

“We do a lot of plastic surgery for burns victims. Surgery is also performed for many types of disfiguring tumours,” said Ms Montgomery.

“People with deformities are sometimes ostracised from their villages, so plastic surgery can be life changing. The dental team does a lot of work off ship. But people are mainly told that, if they are offered surgery and can reach the ship, they can have surgery.

“When people are too ill for surgery, they can go to Hope Centres in Freetown and Lome, which treat malnutrition and ensure they are fit to receive treatment.”

The ship is in a country for 10 months at a time, so the team is not able to treat some conditions.

“For patients with a thyroid swelling in their neck, a goitre, we were unable to operate as we could not be sure that they would be able to get the drugs that they would need to take for the rest of their lives,” she says.

Ms Montgomery says she misses being on the Africa Mercy.

“It felt different when I came back,” she says. “It took a few weeks to adjust. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race, but the Africa Mercy is always in the back of my mind. I’ll definitely go back.”

  • Mercy Ships is appealing for nurses with a range of skills to volunteer in Guinea. See online here or call 01438 727800
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