Saturday, November 10, 2018

Update – a short season “off ship”

Update from us - we are headed to the states for a leave of absence from Mercy Ships over the holidays!  This has been in the works for some time, and we actually departed the ship yesterday evening.  

Here's what is coming up for us:
1- Spend the holiday season in the United States, and have some precious, intentional time with family
2- Return to Guinea at the end of January
3 - Continue serving as Mercy Ships crew, but we will be located off-ship in the interior of Guinea for the remainder of the ship’s visit.  We will be visiting Hope Medical Center (here’s their webpage), where Nick has previously taught the Ponseti method.  (see more details below)

We knew that we would have this break coming up when we went into the busy season of Advance and program set-up here in Guinea.  We chose to do this for a few reasons.  We’re into the 4th year of our service since returning to the ship as a married couple.  We love being here and serving here, but know that it’s also good to have time away from the intensity of life on board.  We love our work, and we want to be wise in how we serve.  We’re very happy to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with family in the states- last time we had Christmas there was in 2013 before we got engaged!  

A recent photo of Nick at work in the clinic - I love the look that kiddo is giving him, haha! :-)

The Ponseti program in Conakry is left in VERY good hands: Aisling (physical therapist from the UK who is leading the team), Ashley (Physical Therapist from USA) and Marina (nurse from Switzerland who has worked on the ponseti program for the last two years).  

After the holidays and when we return to Guinea, we will be continuing our season “off ship”.  We are still serving with Mercy Ships, but we will be working at a hospital in the interior of the country called Hope Medical Center.  Hope has partnered with Mercy Ships in different ways over the years, and Nick went to teach the Ponseti method to some of the staff at Hope in 2014.  Sadly, he was not able to stay and complete the whole program due to the Ebola crisis, which originated not far from the area.  We are thrilled to be able to return there together, and continue the partnership that began in 2014.  We want to support Hope in whatever ways we can so that they continue to have a flourishing clubfoot clinic!  One important aspect of clubfoot treatment is wearing braces on a special schedule.  In addition to treating patients together, Nick and another trainer will teach a special course on brace making.  I will work together with Nick on the Ponseti program and other areas as needed. 

Leaving the ship is bittersweet right now- I (Suzanne) am so looking forward to the months ahead, but I also dearly love my teammates and our community here on board the ship.  To our colleagues on board – we want GOOD things for you, we pray blessings over you, and we know that God is with you in the coming months.  When I think about you, Jesus’s words from John come to mind- “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”  I am cheering you on, Africa Mercy Crew – and may one of the ways that you love and serve the country of Guinea be your example of loving and serving one another. Know that we will be missing you!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Paper Plan to Ponseti Clinic

Hey Team,

It’s been a busy start to the Guinea field service but here’s a little update of one of the things we’ve been up to.

Setting up the Ponseti Clinic
Thanks to Eliphaz (infrastructure manager) and his team, a Paper Plan has been transformed into an amazing space that we call home and the Ponseti Clinic.

This is where our Ponseti Mentoring Program will be based during the Guinea 2018/2019 field service.

Here are some pics of the amazing transformation.

Main Treatment Room

Main Treatment Room (view from other end)

Minor Procedure Room 

Ok that's it for now, it’s been a lot of work but thanks to everyone who helped get the the Ponseti Clinic up and running.  

God is Good. 


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Nick and Suzanne are back in Guinea!

The Veltjenses are in Guinea! This is a special country for us, since it is where we met each other in 2012!

During the Guinea 2012 outreach, Nick was the rehab team leader and I was working in the eye team.  Nick was spending some time treating clubfeet and teaching local people, along with leading the rehab department.  I was new to the ship, learning lots about West Africa and life on board the Africa Mercy.

Nick also returned to Guinea in 2014 to teach the Ponseti method at the Hope Medical Center in Nzao (very far inland from coastal Conakry), but the program was cut short due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus.  This was while we were engaged, and we are still in contact with Hope Medical and have plans to return in 2019.  (I look forward to going there since I haven't been yet!)

Anyway, I arrived here in Conakry in June to join the Advance Team and prepare for the ship's arrival in August.  I held the same role that I did for Cameroon advance in 2017, which was to make preparations for the Medical Capacity Building (MCB) department.  Advance is a season of intense hard work so that everything is in place for the ship to arrive, and once the ship has arrived we take several weeks to handover contacts and information to each department.  I have finished my handover to the MCB department and returned to the Operating Room department two weeks ago. 

Here are some photos of arrival day - it's amazing to see the Africa Mercy sail in to port!  Arrival day is a packed day- wonderful but exhausting as well.  We greeted the ship from the dock in the morning, in the early afternoon there was an arrival ceremony which was hosted on the dock by the government and attended by local officials as well as the advance team and ship leadership.  In the evening the advance team gave a briefing to the crew, each of us took a few minutes to explain our role and share important information about Guinea.  

The first lady attended the arrival ceremony, she is the godmother of the ship's visit here in Guinea.  During the arrival ceremony, I had the special honor of interpreting the first lady's speech into English, which is not as hard as it might sound because I had the words in front of me but it was still nerve wracking :)  Some of the introductions were unscripted though, that was the hardest part.  It went just fine, and I was thankful to be mostly out of view because of the number of press members gathered around the first lady while she was talking.  It was a new experience for sure though!

On August 20, we held our main patient pre-selection, here in Conakry.  Nearly 6,000 people stood in line that day, many people even arrived the evening before and waited all night long.  At pre-screening, we say "I'm sorry we can't help with this problem" more often than "Yes".  We are a specialty surgical hospital, and treat a very specific list of conditions, most people who seek care have a health concern which falls outside of what we treat.  Pre-screenings like this are challenging and require patience and perseverance from both the Mercy Ships teams and the people waiting in line.

What are we up to now?
I have returned to my position in the Operating Room.  I worked the first several weeks as the Ophthalmic Team Leader, setting up the OR for the outreach and getting started with the first couple weeks of eye surgery.  
Here's a photo of the nurses at the end of week 1 of Eye surgery:

Nick has been busily setting put he Ponseti Clubfoot Clinic along with the team (Aisling [physical therapist from the UK], Mary [Registered Nurse from USA], and translators Faya and Koi).  The team has successfully set up the clinic space, screened and selected patients, offered a course and began working with five Guinean healthcare professionals who will come to the clinic several days each week for mentoring.

That's it from us for now, thank you for your support and for keeping up with this journey!

Suzanne and Nick

Thursday, April 5, 2018

8 things we'll remember about Cameroon (part 2/2)

Continuing where we left of from the last post (click here if you missed it), here's the rest of the list of 8 things we'll remember from our time in Cameroon!  

Before I get started though, here's a video Mercy Ships shared recently about one of our orthopedic patients from last year in Benin.  I especially like the guy doing the narration ;)

5 - Beignets!

Just for fun, these tasty snacks make it on the list of things we will remember from Cameroon!  Beignet is a french word for "donut", and in West Africa that means one of these delicious sugar-covered-fried-dough-balls.  They are particularly tasty (and very inexpensive at about $0.20 each) from several bakeries here in Douala.

Pictured here are the ones we served at "open cabin" night during the Christmas holidays- open cabins is a fun Mercy Ships tradition where families, couples and any crew who want to open their cabin and offer a snack can do so, and the rest of the crew go door to door.  It's a fun way to welcome fellow crew members into our own little homes here on board. 

6 - Mercy Ships OR Department

This field service I am continuing in my role as an operating room nurse.  We have 5 operating rooms (or "operating theatres" depending on where you are from) on the ship.  We generally do the following specialties in each room:
OR 1 - plastics surgery/orthopedic 
OR 2 - women's health/sometimes general surgery
OR 3  - maxillofacial 
OR's 4 + 5 - ophthalmic 

I spend lots of time in OR 5 with the eye team, and have also worked with orthopedics and maxfacs this year.  Here's me working in the ortho room:

Pictured below:  In the OR we celebrate "funky friday" every week and wear crazy scrubs.  We work very hard, but do so with plenty of teamwork and encouragement for one another, and we know how to have fun!

Cataract Surgery - We've had an exciting eye program here in Cameroon.  We came with the goal of treating as many patients as we can, and also providing training to surgeons who will continue to perform this type of cataract surgery once we have left.  Our long-term ophthalmic surgeon, Dr. Glenn Strauss, is an amazing surgeon and excellent teacher.  I've had the joy of watching Dr. Glenn mentor several local ophthalmic surgeons on board the ship in the past months.   In particular, we had one surgeon who came every day to work with us from September - December (Dr. Patricia, in the photo with me), and another surgeon who has come each day from January-now (Dr. Christiane).  Each of these women has become part of the heart of this team, and we wish the very best for them as they take their new skills onward to serve their country. 

Pictured to the left is a cataract patient- his left eye has scarring from a previous accident or infection and likely does not see at all.  His right eye (marked as the surgical site) is also blinded with a dense cataract.  You can see the white surface of the cataract behind the pupil.  Most of our patients became blind gradually over months or years as their cataract became more dense.  In the US and Australia, we would take cataracts out early, as soon as the vision is becoming blurry.  In Cameroon good treatment is often expensive and difficult to access, which leads to people becoming completely blind even though their condition is treatable.

7 - One of our favorite beaches in Africa

About 1 hour 45 mins drive from Douala is this stunning black-sand beach near the city of Limbe.  We spent some peaceful weekends here, and it has become one of our very favorite places.  There is a really nice, simple beach hotel that does great fresh fish dinners.  It's been a retreat for us; we visited in October and December.

Here's a fun contrast though - the above photos were taken in October.  The one to the left was taken in December, and the cloudiness in the sky is not fog, it's dust!  This is the phenomenon called the Harmattan which greets us every year from about December-March in pretty much any West African country.  During the dry season, wind blows over the Sahara desert and brings layers of dust, which leave us in an orange haze for a few months.  It's an interesting sight for a couple of days, but it's not my favorite season in West Africa.  Another side note- that it me in the photo standing on a surf board for the first time in my life. ;)  The beach is so calm, it was a fun place to try it out!

8 - Volleyball (and other sports)

As you can see in the photos below, the Port of Douala has allowed us a lot of dock space, which has been a huge blessing.  The space next to the parking lot gets used daily for different sports after work hours.  

Nick and I have particularly enjoyed playing lots of 2x2 volleyball games.  I've also started running, which is something I never thought I'd enjoy.  It's been rewarding to see my endurance build up since I started in November.

...continuing faithfully, finishing well

So, this was a bit of a random collection of thoughts/themes/bits of Cameroon.  Things we will remember (not all of equal importance, even though we de like beignets). Cameroon has grown me personally in many ways, and we've seen God's goodness to us.   After the season of doing Advance when we were pretty tired out, we saw God's faithfulness to us in so many ways and we were able to get the rest we needed.  During the last weeks of our time here, we want to finish well, celebrating the goodness of deep friendships, hard work completed, strong partnerships.  

Here's some goodness to celebrate: check out this sweet patient's progress!  Justine was one of the first patients who came on board for ortho surgery:

Thank you!

Suzanne + Nick

Thursday, March 29, 2018

8 things we'll remember about Cameroon (part 1/2)

Hello dear friends - time to break the long silence on this blog! Sometimes when life gets ahead of us like this I don’t know where to start or what to share with you. But, please know that we deeply appreciate each of you who sends us encouragement and keeps up with us on this journey!

We are both well, we are continuing on in our service here in Douala, Cameroon, with the end of this season here approaching quickly.  I (Suzanne) have been in Cameroon since June, and Nick since July 2017.  I’ve found some memories and pieces of our lives here in Cameroon to share with you.  I’ll share a few “themes” of what our time here has looked like.

First though, I'd like to share something put together by our videographer, Caleb.  This from a couple months ago, and it's a beautiful look into our field service here in Cameroon!  We've now surpassed the number of surgeries quoted at the end.  

1 - Partnership - Ponseti Clubfoot Clinic

Once again, we are blessed with excellent local partners in the Ponseti program.  We praise God for this- for the hard working and dedicated Cameroonian physical therapists and doctors who will carry this work forward once the ship has sailed away.  Many families will find treatment for their children with clubfoot because of them!

I love seeing Nick completely in his element like this - he thrives on seeing those around him grow in their skills.  And this is not limited to teaching Cameroonians, but also to fellow Mercy Ships crew members. We are so thankful for the physical therapists who have become involved in the Ponseti program as well, and love seeing them also enabled to treat children and share knowledge.  This team is growing, and it's a beautiful thing.  

This year the Ponseti team is providing training to 8 physical therapists and doctors, and is treating 25 children. Staff in training are from both public and private Cameroonian hospitals.  Below is Ouesseni, who had quite severe clubfeet.  But, his dedicated parents have faithfully brought him to casting appointments and brace check ups, and his feet are now looking great!

2 - Dockside sunsets

Our ship is in port on the Wouri river, in Douala Cameroon.  On clear days we get to look out at a beautiful sunset, with Mount Cameroon off in the distance, so beautiful!  

Here's a short video I made of the sunset from Deck 7:

3 - Sterile processing training

Once again, I had the opportunity to work alongside Christina Fast ( to find out more about her organization!) to offer training in the care of operating room instruments.  This too-often overlooked aspect of any safe surgery is something that I have become involved in because of my time with Mercy Ships.  

20 participants came from 5 area hospitals for a classroom course.    Many of these participants were heads of their departments, who made lots of time in their schedules to attend the course.  This group was particularly engaged in the training, and were a real pleasure to work with.  They have a challenging job, and they work in a context where it is difficult to get the necessary supplies to do the job well.  During the course, we spent lots of time talking about what types of supplies are an absolute necessity, how to adapt as best as possible, best practice, and ideas for future development of sterile processing departments.  This course provided an avenue for professionals from the Douala area to share ideas and get to know each other.  In the photo, Christina is teaching the group about wrapping instrument sets.

4 - Christmas on the Ship

This was our third Christmas on the ship as a married couple.  Nick and I always miss our families at Christmas time, but it's a special season here as well.  We put up decorations in our cabin, participated in the annual gingerbread house contest, as well as special traditions from around the world.  See photo on the left: I saved some of the blue paper our sterile items are wrapped in in the operating room and re-used it as wrapping paper for Nick's gifts. ;)

Numbers 5-8 will be posted in a few days, but I'll end here for today...a couple weeks ago we repeated the same camping trip we did in October because we liked it so much.  The green and fresh air did my heart good, and it was precious time with close friends.  There are some special people on this journey with us, and we are so thankful for them!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

long weekend - hiking at Manengouba

Last weekend was the first long weekend of the outreach.  Since the crew of the Africa Mercy comes from so many different countries, we can't take each one of our own national holidays off work.  We wouldn't get much surgery done if we did that.  So, instead we have "ship holidays" and occasionally take a long weekend.  Life has been busy since the ship arrived in Cameroon.  We were ready for some fresh air and green grass, and to get away from life inside an industrial port for a few days.

Cameroon is sometimes referred to as "Africa in the Miniature", because the landscape and culture are so very diverse in the different regions.  Rainy season is just coming to an end, and the place we went was bright with every shade of green.  We visited an area called Manengouba, which is home to a mountainous national park with twin crater lakes.  Also in the area is a waterfall called Ekom-Nkam, which was especially powerful after all the rains.  Our friends Missy and Valérie joined us on this adventure - here are some photos from our weekend:

On the road, already enjoying the green scenery

A couple hours drive outside Douala, the landscape keeps changing

We stayed in a villa at the foot of the mountain the day before we started our hike, it was such a lovely place!  Amazing flowers, and the staff made us some great meals.

Fresh juice at breakfast

We were so thankful for mornings like this one- good friends, birds singing, beautiful weather

The four hikers, ready to go

Early on the trail we passed some farms, one of the crops was coffee.  Our guide was showing us the coffee beans, which will turn a shade of red when they are ready to be harvested.

This area has some stunning green, rolling hills.  The villages in the mountains have herds of cattle, goats and horses.

We had some help with the camping gear - the hike was 12 kilometers each way, so these guys took the tents, water and supplies up to the lakes on horseback for us.

Continuing on the trail on the way up

Finally reached the summit and saw our first views of the lakes below

That shelter on the far side of the lake is where we pitched out tents for the night - here you can see the storm clouds rolling in while we were still finishing the hike in.  We barely made it!  As soon as we got there, we unfolded the tents (luckily they were the quick set-up type that don't need lots of assembly) threw our bags inside and zipped them shut.

Here's the guides leaving for the night, minutes before a torrential downpour

We stayed dry!  It rained hard for about an hour, and then didn't rain again the rest of the night.

Dinner by flashlight- way too wet to build a fire.  We ate well though- peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches, plenty of snacks, and some wine.   :-)

We could watch the lightning off in the distance for quite a long time after the rain had stopped

Waking up the next was so refreshing and cool outside, and windy too.

Ready to begin the journey back to the villa

The weary hikers made it back to the villa - Missy's shoes didn't make it back in one piece, and we were ready for a shower and a meal.  But still smiling, and so glad we did it!

One last place to visit on our weekend away was the Ekom-Nkam Waterfalls.  The waterfall is 80 meters high (260+ feet), and was extremely powerful after these rainy months.  Such a beautiful, lush area - this waterfall was once used as part of the backdrop for a tarzan movie - not hard to see why!

Thanks Missy and Valérie for being such great travel companions and adventurers- we had a great time!!! We are thankful for the opportunity to see more of the country of Cameroon, and for the fresh air and rest.