Africa has always held a special place in the heart of Capt. Laurie Wesely, USNR (Ret), who visited the continent on several humanitarian missions during her 29-year naval career.
In 2019, the MOAA member was able to give back once more as a volunteer nurse for Mercy Ships, a nonprofit that provides free life-altering and emergency surgeries around the world.
While aboard the Africa Mercy with her late husband, Wesely served as a nurse on the maxillofacial ward for two months. She attended to children with a variety of ailments, including serious facial deformities and life-threatening tumors.
She also got to put away her scrubs for a day to donate blood to a young boy from Guinea.
“We had one boy who had a type of tumor that just drained blood,” said Wesely, who publicly recounted her trip for the first time at a Tarheel Central (N.C.) Chapter of MOAA meeting this April. “They had to give him 14 or 15 pints of blood before his surgery. In the U.S., when you give blood, you don’t know where it goes. But I got to meet him, before and after surgery. It was so heartwarming, and he did fine.”
[RELATED: More MOAA Members in the Spotlight]
Docked on the coastline of Africa for 10 months, Africa Mercy is like a floating village for the patients and the 1,300 volunteers that come and go during the year. Before the patients set foot on the ship, advance teams assess the needs of each country they visit. Local residents line up to get screened for a chance to go on the ship, a process that takes several weeks, said Mercy Ships spokesperson Kylie Best.
“Because we are only in country for 10 months, we cannot accommodate some diseases, like cancer,” said Best.
But the many who do receive treatment — there have been 105,000 surgeries since 1978 — walk out with expressions of joy. Wesely will never forget the smiles on her patients’ faces after their facial surgeries.
“When they receive their admission bag, it comes with a mirror,” said Wesely. “They are looking at themselves after [the surgeries] and the smiles you see are amazing. They can’t even believe the change in their life. No more going back to school and people making fun of them.”
In many cases, it is more than just insults that the patients face before surgery. Many residents in the villages where they live believe the person’s facial deformities or illnesses are curses or the devil’s work, said Wesely.
“We had one mom who had a baby of eight months who had neurofibroma on back of her neck, which is an opening in the spinal cord,” Wesely said. “… The child would have died in six months. The villagers told the mom to drown the baby because the devil had cursed it. We were all bawling hearing the story.”
Since her trip, Wesely has continued to serve her community, working as a volunteer nurse at a Storehouse for Jesus, a Christian-based nonprofit in Mocksville, N.C. But she will never forget her time on Africa Mercy.
“This will remain a treasured memory in our hearts wherever we go, whatever we do in the years to come,” wrote Wesely in a blog while on the ship. “… The Africa Mercy, her mission, and her people will forever be in our prayers for continued success.”