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Jess Davis ready to board the hospital ship

Living the dream by saving lives


Brisbane nurse Jess Davis has made her childhood dream come true after spending two months volunteering her skills in Africa on board the world’s largest independent hospital ship.

The ACU nursing graduate had dreamed of working in Africa as a child – but after the nurse fell over on her way to night shift in 2016, resulting in an ankle reconstruction, her dream felt very far away.

“After my operation, I wasn’t able to work, I lost sight of going to Africa, and because of that I was very depressed. I was lying on the couch at home in April 2017 watching TV and saw a documentary called The Surgery Ship I was intrigued and began researching Mercy Ships and felt called to apply. It was the first time in months that I had a sense of purpose and hope, and something to look forward to,” she said.

Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free health care services and aid to those without access in the developing world. In March 2018, Jess joined a crew of more than 400 volunteers on board the Africa Mercy while it was docked in the Central African nation of Cameroon.

Unique challenges

The skills Jess employed on board were familiar; her job description essentially the same as her role walking the hospital wards in Australia. But while her role was similar, the new environment and circumstances bought an unacquainted set of challenges. 

Despite working in what most of us would view a troubling, or at least a peculiar, working environment, Jess adored her new patients and thrived.

Jess Martin volunteers in Africa

Jess Davis enjoyed her time in Africa.

“The job I had on the ship was as a ward nurse, very similar to what I do here in Australia, just with a different demographic and unique illnesses and diseases,” Jess said.

“I was working on the women’s health ward caring for ladies who suffered from obstructed labour, sometimes lasting up to 10 days. These women more often than not delivered stillborn children and were left with a fistula, either between their vagina and bladder, vagina and rectum, or both. Subsequently, they constantly leak urine and/or faeces. 

“Looking after these women was definitely one of the highlights. They taught me so much in a short period of time. They would come to the ship, sometimes after years of social rejection and family abandonment, after being told there was no cure. They came hopeless.

“Watching them go from being admitted and not looking anyone in the eye, to singing and dancing in the hospital corridors and wards was amazing. They, who had suffered so much for so long, were some of the strongest, happiest, most joyful and thankful women I have ever met. They just glowed."

“Before being discharged, each woman was honoured by the ship. Every other Tuesday while I was there, there was a ceremony where they would receive a dress made for them, bright and flamboyant in colour. They had their makeup done, and they come out to Deck 7 on the ship, where everyone was waiting to celebrate their new lives with them. It was so uplifting.”

Help and healing

The stories Jess relays are extraordinary. Tale after tale of those who had experienced unimaginable trauma, who lost all hope of finding a cure, receiving their ‘miracles’ on board the ship. 

“I remember one woman, she was in her 60s and she said ‘I have suffered with this illness for 44 years. I searched everywhere for help and could not find it. I lost all hope. I didn’t want to come to Mercy Ships because I didn’t believe that I could be healed. Praise God a miracle has happened.’ That is the testimony of just about every patient who has surgery on the ship.

Saving lives in Africa

“A young 18 year old boy didn’t want to come to the ship because he didn’t trust ‘white people’ and didn’t believe that it was free. His father forced him to come, and when he left the hospital he said his life had been changed beyond anything he could have ever imagined and he had so much thanks and gratitude for those who served on board. 

“A mother of a young baby, who was on death’s door when they arrived and who had a cleft lip and palate repair said ‘I'm so thankful for all the love and care here. Before, I was walking with a dead corpse, but the Lord has changed the life of Paul and given him a new one.’”

It’s not over yet

Her time in Africa may be behind her for now, but Jess has been forever changed by the experience. A spark has been lit, and she is determined to continue on the path she has found.

“I am beyond blessed to have served on the Africa Mercy, and had the opportunity to care for the men, women, and children, to love on them and share life with them.

“I was utterly in awe of the women, astounded by the resilience of the children, and at times still cannot comprehend the full extent to which some of these patients have suffered. It blew my mind each and every day just how lucky I am to have been born in Australia, and how much more lucky I am to have flown to the other side of the world and been witness to and served the people of Cameroon in this way.

Making a difference in Africa

“I am thankful that I have a God who led me here and has helped me view life differently. My faith has been uplifted so much here in Cameroon. Not just by what I have seen, but by the constant encouragement from fellow crew members, by the round-the-clock prayer ministry on the ship, by the deep conversations. I am oh-so-lucky to have been part of this field service in Cameroon, and I feel my time is not over yet.”

Jess will be serving on the Africa Mercy again later this year, this time in Conakry, Guinea.

Jess Davis completed a Bachelor of Nursing at ACU. Learn more about studying nursing at ACU.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright @ Australian Catholic University 1998-2018 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G