Twiggs County native returns home after volunteer work in Africa

pramati@macon.comJune 8, 2014 

Twiggs County native Kari Griffis, right, shares a laugh with one of her patients. Griffis has served on three different missions to African countries. The experience was quite different from the kind she had helping patients when she worked as a nurse at The Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon.

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    According to its website, Mercy Ships has donated more than $1 billion worth of medical services and supplies to several African countries. During its three-decade history, volunteer medical crews have treated about 539,000 patients and performed about 63,000 surgeries.

    To learn more about the organization or to volunteer or make a donation, visit www.mercyships.org.

Kari Griffis admits that she wasn’t completely prepared the first time she boarded a Mercy Ship in 2011.

After working for four years as a nurse at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, she had seen her fair share of cases that are common in American hospitals.

But working with Mercy Ship -- an international charity that provides free health care in African countries -- the Twiggs County native encountered patients with medical challenges that she had never dealt with.

“It was a little bit of a shock value,” she said, referring to cleft palates and large tumors on patients’ faces. “I had never seen anything like this. ... It was a huge adjustment to go from emergency care to postoperative care. I kind of had to train myself.”

Griffis didn’t find it off-putting, though. On the contrary, she just got home about a month ago from her third tour on a hospital ship, spending nine months aboard the Africa Mercy on the coast of the Republic of Congo.

“I love it,” she said. “I love interacting with the people. They’re so grateful for the help. You see such a transformation when they have a huge deformity or are burned or you help them regain mobility.”

Griffis’ mother, Sherry Griffis, said she wasn’t exactly thrilled when her daughter described her plan to join one of the all-volunteer missions three years ago.

“To be truthful, I was kind of upset,” Sherry Griffis said. “I didn’t know what to expect with safety issues or the conditions she’d be working in, or the fact that she was leaving a good job.

“After she got over there, I talked to her on Facebook and e-mail and got used to the idea about the good she was doing, that people really needed help. I’m still kind of worried, but not as much.”

Mercy Ships is a 501(c)3 charity based in Texas that operates the Africa Mercy, the largest charity hospital ship, off the coast of Africa. The ships’ crews -- both medical and nonmedical personnel -- are all volunteer, and nearly all of the supplies and equipment are donated, said Russ Holmes, the director of corporate relations.

“There’s a great sense of achievement” among the crew, Holmes said, treating conditions such as babies born with cataracts to people with clubfeet. “For Mercy Ships, volunteers are our greatest asset. ... Without them, we couldn’t do what we do.”

‘Floating cities’

Griffis said most of her duties were onboard the ship, providing postoperative care to patients. She made regular trips into nearby villages and said she and her shipmates have always been treated with respect and friendship.

“We would leave the ships on our days off and go explore, go to the markets,” she said, listing Sierra Leone, the Republic of Guinea and Republic of the Congo as her destinations during her three tours.

“All of them have had their troubles,” she said. “Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world.”

While she said the ships have their own security and she never felt like she was in danger, some of the patients she treated from Republic of the Congo were victims of conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We had one patient who needed rhinoplasty,” she said. “He had been hit by a bullet in the nose and needed his nose reconstructed.”

Another potential danger for Mercy Ships are the pirates who operate out of Africa. But Griffis said most of the pirates travel along the east coast of the continent, while Mercy Ships operate on the west coast.

Holmes said the ships haven’t had any incidents in 35 years of operations.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “When we pull into a country, we have a security team on board. We’re very highly thought of, and we’re there at the invitation of the country. We get a lot of respect from the locals and are treated very well.”

In addition to health care, Holmes said the ships also have teachers and classrooms. He likened the ships to “floating cities.”

Griffis said she had wanted to do volunteer work abroad and wanted to go to Haiti after the earthquake, but wasn’t able to get on a mission. But when she heard about Mercy Ships, she volunteered with them instead.

“I felt like I was ready to do something else,” she said. “I tried to go to Haiti, but that didn’t work out. Then a co-worker told me about Mercy Ships.”

Volunteering isn’t easy, however. Sherry Griffis noted that her daughter had to leave her job because of the time commitment, and she had to pay for meals while working as a volunteer.

“She’s actually donated a lot of money to the cause herself,” the elder Griffis said.

Kari Griffis said she’s planning on staying stateside for a while, and she would love to work in pediatrics in Georgia. She’s searching for a nursing job and hopes that her time in Africa will make her stand out among job candidates.

“It could make me really attractive -- or not attractive at all,” she said.

Griffis said she wouldn’t trade her time in Africa for anything.

“I thought I was going to be this small-town girl,” she said. “I never imagined I’d go to Africa, let alone three times.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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