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CMC nurse spreads hope and healing to patients on floating hospital

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

March 31. 2018 9:35PM
Rebecca Roma removes sutures from Bernard, a patient on the Africa Mercy, a few days after his surgery. (Courtesy)
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To read Rebecca Roma's blog about her experience on Africa Mercy, visit missionstoafrica.wordpress.com.

Rebecca Roma was a young volunteer at Soulfest, a Christian festival held at Gunstock each summer, when she met a nurse who told her about Mercy Ships. The idea of these floating hospitals that provide free medical care in some of the poorest spots around the world captured her 15-year-old imagination.

"I just immediately felt my heart kind of being tugged," she said. "I never really forgot about it."

Now 29, Roma is spending Easter on board the Africa Mercy, the world's largest nongovernmental floating hospital. While the ship is docked in the port of Douala in Cameroon, its volunteer medical personnel perform life-saving surgeries and life-changing treatments on local residents, and provide training to local doctors and nurses.

"The whole mission here is to bring hope and healing to the world's forgotten poor," Roma said.

Many patients have gruesome medical conditions that distort their appearance. But Roma said all she feels for them is love.

"These people, they're used to being ostracized; they're used to being cast out of society," she said.

"This is the first place they've come to where someone can look them in the eyes and see them, that they're in there," she said. "That they're a person and that they're not outcasts, that they're loved."

For Roma, a Salem native, this work flows from her Christian faith. "We are the hands and feet of Jesus," she said.

After graduating from Nashua Christian Academy, Roma went to nursing school "because I knew I wanted to do something involving helping people."

Then work and marriage came along. But she never lost her dream of serving on a Mercy Ship.

And in February, with the blessing of her husband, Roma took a leave of absence from her job as a floor nurse in the cardiovascular surgical unit at Catholic Medical Center, using vacation time to pull it off.

After eight weeks on the ship, she returns to New Hampshire next weekend.

Rebecca Roma, a nurse in the cardiovascular surgical unit at Catholic Medical Center, visits a young patient on the ship. Roma is using vacation time to spend eight weeks on the Africa Mercy. (Courtesy)

Serving on the Africa Mercy has been "everything that I imagined it would be," Roma said. She's seen firsthand how the kind of medical care that so often is taken for granted back home can change lives elsewhere.

Bernard, a 19-year-old with dreams of becoming an IT engineer, has a condition that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue. On the Africa Mercy, surgeons removed a large, disfiguring tumor from his face.

Seeing how such patients react to their new appearance in a mirror has been an incredible experience, Roma said. "The first time you unwrap that dressing and they're able to see their face without that tumor they've been living with their whole lives, their faces just light up," she said.

"I feel like I'm able to see true joy."

Another patient named Dieudonne, 26, had a condition called temporomandibular joint ankylosis that had caused his jaw to lock at the age of 7.

After Dieudonne's surgical dressing was removed, Roma was there with the rest of the medical team to witness his joy as he opened his mouth for the first time in 19 years.

"It was just so beautiful," she said. "He was just throwing his hands up in the air and celebrating and crying. He was high-fiving everybody who walked by his bed."

The emotional impact of this work can be overwhelming, she said. "These are things that people thought they were going to have to live with for their entire lives. Then this floating hospital ship comes in and offers them a free surgery. It's incredible."

About 400 people serve on the ship, hailing from 40 nations, she said. "I've lived with Aussies and Dutchies and UK (citizens)," she said.

And despite the occasional language barriers, Roma said, "We all have very similar hearts."

"Everybody's here because they want to be here," she said. "It's 100 percent volunteers, and that creates a good atmosphere."

Resources are far more limited, she said. "A lot of things we throw away at home after one use, we wash and re-use," she said, such as medicine cups and patient basins. And with very close quarters, she said, "We have to get kind of creative with space."

But it's also a more holistic type of nursing, she said. "I have time to play games with my patients, and paint their fingernails."

Being on the Africa Mercy, Roma said, has certainly changed her perspective. "Just to see how much suffering there is, how people have nothing," she said.

"And in America we are so spoiled. You walk down the street and the hospital's going to take you in," she said. "It's just a given."

This will be Roma's last weekend on board; she was supposed to have Easter weekend off, but offered to take someone else's shift. "I just really want to be with the patients," she said.

There will be a sunrise service, followed by brunch and some holiday activities.

Roma knows it will take some adjustment when she returns home. "I'm going to have to rely on God for that as well," she said. "It was a transition coming here and I'm sure there will be some reverse culture shock."

She's excited to see her husband, Matthew (they've only been married for 18 months), but Roma said it will be "bittersweet" to leave.

"Especially since I can so openly incorporate my faith into my care for my patients," she said. "It's something you're able to be very open about here."

And that's something the ship's volunteers have in common, she said.

"That's why we're here," she said. "We're here because we love God and we're compelled by that love to serve people who are in dire need."

swickham@unionleader.com


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