Nelleke Kerkhoff

Setting sail on a mission of mercy

A Chilliwack nurse is boarding a hospital ship docked off the coast of Africa for an 11-week stint to help the ill.

In just a few days, Chilliwack nurse Nelleke Kerkhoff will take up residence on a living, breathing hospital ship docked off the African west coast.

Kerkhoff is doing her third tour aboard Africa Mercy, this time heading to the Republic of the Congo for 11 weeks. She will be one of 450 crew members to operate the full-fledged emergency hospital from inside a large ocean vessel operated by the charity Mercy Ships, an organization that has been stationing a hospital ship for short stretches at various ports in the developing world since 1978.

“I really enjoyed it the previous times I went. It’s just a way to give back. We really have so much here,” said Kerkhoff. “It pushes me out of my comfort zone.”

Based on past experiences, much of Kerkhoff’s work as an intensive care unit nurse in the Congo will be assisting in complex life-saving facial surgeries. In countries with very little access to basic care, common tumours end up developing to tremendous sizes, taking over a person’s face and obstructing the airway. Humanitarian operations such as Mercy Ships provide one of the few opportunities that residents have for corrective surgeries.

Hospital ship Africa MercyWorking aboard the ship is a very different environment for Kerkhoff, who has a permanent position as an ICU nurse at Abbotsford hospital. The ship is like a “small city unto itself,” she says. There are 78 hospital beds alongside the various operating theatres and medical rooms. But there is also accommodation for crew, a cafeteria, a bank, a post office, and even a Starbucks. The busy environment makes for little privacy for those like Kerkhoff living and working aboard for months on end.

One of the most unique features of the docked hospital are the “extra bodies,” says Kerkhoff. Many patients arrive with caregivers or companions, who end up sleeping underneath the patient’s bed because there isn’t space enough for large waiting rooms. There are also many translators to help navigate between the country’s various dialects. In her duties, Kerkhoff often needs to find several people to interpret one message.

“If I’m trying to give directions to a patient about taking medication when they go home, I might have to translate English to French to another local language, and then find somebody else to translate that to another local language,” she said.

And medical supplies are precious.

“Over here (in Canada), we have everything at our fingertips. But there, supplies are like gold. So you don’t just use supplies unless you’re sure you’re going to need them,” she said. “There’s so much waste here. You really realize it when you come back.”

Kerkhoff’s previous trips with Mercy Ships took her to Liberia in 2008 and Togo in 2010. She worked alongside nurses from around the globe, all with different trainings and backgrounds, and one task was just figuring out how to work together.

Kerkhoff encourages others to look into doing a similar trip, even if they don’t have medical training. Mercy Ships needs people to run the kitchen, dining room, housekeeping, library, deck, and do construction.

“For me it was a good step because I could have the comfort of knowing I was in a safe environment with food that I knew was going to be safe, to have a clean bed to sleep in, and still be able to bring that care to a Third World country,” said Kerkhoff.

Last year, Chilliwack mom Kathryn Stock joined the staff of Africa Mercy for two years as an administrator in the ophthalmology department.

Volunteer crew members like Kerkhoff have to pay their own way for the trip. About 90 of Kerkhoff’s friends and family came out for a bike-a-thon last week along Vedder River, raising over $6,000 for her trip. That’s more than she needs, and Kerkhoff will likely be donating the excess to Mercy Ships.

Kerkhoff is blogging about her experience at

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