Like many high school graduates, Chirnside Park teenager Jacqui Saward wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after leaving her school days behind at the end of last year.
But unlike most of her peers who take a gap year after completing grade 12, Miss Saward decided to use her free time to volunteer with a medical NGO in West Africa.
“Last year I applied to medical school with the hope of becoming a doctor. After being unsuccessful, I realised that I didn’t entirely know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go in life,” Miss Saward explained.
“I did know, however, that I had a passion to work within marginalised communities, specifically in the area of health care. As a result, I decided to take a gap year. The only question was ‘what should I do?’”
Miss Saward, 19, began to research volunteer gap year opportunities online that involved a medical component. While most of the organisations she found required experience, her search eventually led her to Mercy Ships.
She was accepted to serve as a receptionist on board the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest independent hospital ship that provides free surgeries, health care, and development aid to some of the world’s poorest countries.
After spending the first half of 2016 working at Kmart to raise the funds needed to travel to Africa, she joined Mercy Ships in Durban, South Africa, in June before sailing with the ship to its current field location of Cotonou, Benin, where Miss Saward will serve until early January.
“Before coming I was nervous about stepping into this unknown. It can be hard meeting new people, starting a new job and adapting to a different way of life.”
“But I think every time you step outside of your comfort zone you learn something you otherwise never would have learnt. So my fear ended up being a massive comfort, knowing that the challenge would also bring a great reward.”
The Africa Mercy, with its five operating theatres and 82 patient beds, arrived in Benin in August. During the current 10-month field service Mercy Ships plans to provide more than 1,700 surgeries to adult and paediatric patients, to treat over 8,000 people at a land-based dental clinic, and to provide training and mentoring to Beninese health care professionals.
“I didn’t know much about Benin at all before coming. In fact I didn’t even know it existed as a country. It’s not a common place you here about in Africa. “
“The conditions here are in many cases diseases of poverty. Due to low income, people are less likely to have adequate nutrition and access to health care. This means people are more likely to become sick and as a result, people are unable to go to school or work, further reducing their income and potential to live a productive life.”
When comparing her role in reception to other jobs on board, Miss Saward said it can seem that her role isn’t as important and significant.
“However, I have found ways to see the purpose in my role here such as being able help the crew when they have questions, being the point of contact for emergency situations, greeting patients when they first walk on board, a smiling face for people as they pass through, and being able to meet many people on the ship. It’s all a matter of perspective and how you look at it.”
Miss Saward will spend Christmas on board the Africa Mercy before returning home early in the new year with plans to attend university to study medicine or physiotherapy.
For further information, please contact:
National Office Manager, Mercy Ships Australia