How far can a degree from UNC take you? After graduating from UNC’s School of Nursing, Laura Nemeth (BS-10) moved all the way across the country to work in the specialized field of pediatric critical care. But that was just the beginning of her journey. Ms. Nemeth wanted to serve the needs of communities globally, communities that often suffer from limited access to healthcare. So she saved her money, took a hiatus from her job in Tennessee, and traveled over 6,700 miles to work aboard the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest charity medical ship.
For three months, she lived aboard this gigantic vessel while it was docked in the Congolese city of Pointe Noire. There, she cared for children as they underwent surgery to repair cleft palates and remove life-threatening tumors. Ms. Nemeth has documented many facets of this journey on her blog, and we were curious to learn even more about her experiences. She took some time to speak with us about the steps that led her from UNC to the Republic of Congo and some of the valuable lessons she hopes to bring back to her work in the States.
What initially drew you to study nursing at UNC?
Nursing has been a long-time dream of mine, so when I began looking at colleges, I knew exactly what I was looking for: an in-state school where I could earn my Bachelor’s and receive top-notch medical training. UNC’s nursing program has an outstanding reputation, and it ended up being a great fit for all of my criteria.
What were some of the biggest challenges and rewards you experienced throughout your studies?
As you might imagine, studying to become a nurse was not without its challenges. Freshman year I took Biology 101 and ended up bombing my first test with a 54%. This was a big wake-up call for me as you can tell from my precise memory of the score. From that point on, I threw myself into my studies—Michener Library and I became intimately acquainted to say the least. By the end of the semester I was able to pull my grades up and, a few years later when graduation finally rolled around, my GPA was strong enough to earn a cum laude. On the whole, I was pushed quite hard throughout my education, but the challenges definitely paid off.
What inspired you to pursue this experience aboard the Africa Mercy and what steps did you have to go through to make it a reality?
In my senior year at UNC, one of my clinical instructors told me about a coworker of hers who was nursing abroad in Africa. Her story really sparked my interest: it was one of the first times that I had thought about nursing as a skill set that could take me all over the world. From then on, global nursing became a major goal of mine.
During my 5th semester in UNC’s nursing program, I had the opportunity to travel to Knoxville and work as a student nurse at the University of Tennessee Medical center. That experience of moving across the country to practice what I had learned gave me a huge confidence boost. I knew that I was capable of adapting my skills to the demands of a totally new setting.
After graduating and getting some more experience as a critical care nurse in the “real world,” it seemed like it was time to take that final leap and go abroad. Things began to fall into place: I had the money saved, the lease on my apartment was almost up, and the Mercy Ships jumped out at me as a program that needed nurses with my exact specialization. With the support of my friends and family I finalized my plans and now here I am.
Can you describe a “typical day” aboard the Africa Mercy?
As a place to live, a good word to describe the atmosphere onboard would be “communal.” Most nurses live in 6-person cabins with 3 sets of bunk beds and a shared bathroom. All meals are served buffet-style. It actually reminds me a bit of dorm life back when I lived in McCowen Hall. At UNC, I learned how to live as a member of community: making friends with the people you’re living alongside and negotiating conflicts when they arise. Those skills have definitely come in handy here.
The hustle and bustle aboard this ship is constant and sleep can be hard to come by, even in the most socially harmonious conditions. Still, it’s inspiring to see how much can be accomplished with so many people working together in such close quarters. The entire 450-person vessel is run by volunteers and there are a lot jobs that need to get done in order for the hospital staff to do their work efficiently: maintaining the ship, preparing the food, training students in the academy of long-term staff. The level of coordination involved is pretty incredible.
Nurses take rotating 8-hour shifts and your “typical day” will often change dramatically based on the shift you’re working. My three months onboard have been quite an emotional roller coaster, filled with high highs and low lows. You come face-to-face with a level of pain and resilience that can shake you to your core.
Many of the patients I care for suffer from tumors that begin to obstruct their airways as they grow. Surgeries to treat these patients are a top priority because, if they’re not performed in time, the patient can suffocate. The week that the Africa Mercy began operating in Pointe Noire, two children came into our care who were facing this condition. One of these children was still healthy enough to undergo the operation successfully, but the other child’s condition had progressed too far for her to be treated and she passed away. Experiencing these two opposite outcomes so close together has affected me in ways I can’t fully express yet. It’s definitely been cemented in my mind that access to healthcare is something that should never be taken for granted.
You’ve mentioned on your blog that you have a specialized skill set—pediatric critical care—which is well suited to the demands of medical care aboard the Africa Mercy. How have you brought those skills to bear over the past 3 months and how has your style of nursing evolved?
Pediatric critical care is a very specialized field of nursing. It requires a lot of teamwork and critical thinking skills that can only be developed with the help of time, practice, and a lot of peer encouragement. Still, on the Africa Mercy I find myself growing and adjusting in ways I hadn’t expected. The large number of patients and the flow of our work has taught me new time management skills. I’ve learned about the treatment of diseases I never encountered before in my professional life. I’ve also changed the way I interact with patients.
For a variety of reasons, nursing on the Africa Mercy causes you to build strong relationships with the people you’re caring for. Patients often have long recovery times during which they don’t require a lot of strict medical attention. What they truly need during that period is a lot of personal, day-to-day encouragement to help them through their hospital stay. The ship is well staffed with translators who are fluent in French, Kituba, and Lingala and they’re vital in helping us communicate with our patients, but oftentimes our deepest bonds are formed through non-verbal means. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed through things like gesture, body language, and touch.
What do you think you’re going to take away from your global nursing experience?
This has undoubtedly been a life-changing experience. However, I probably won’t be able to express the scope and nature of that change until after I’ve returned to the states. I still feel like I’m headed down the same path personally and professionally, but with a different attitude. My patients and the broader Congolese community have shown me an encouraging, accepting, and loving way of life here and I hope that I will never forget that, no matter where my journey takes me.
Thank you, Ms. Nemeth, for sharing that journey with us!
If you’d like to learn more about the exciting accomplishments of UNC’s Nursing graduates and faculty members, tune into the News section on the School of Nursing’s homepage. Also, be sure not to miss this interview with Nursing alum Heidi Burnett (BS-13), who was recently named as one of this year’s winners for the prestigious DAISY Award.
Are there other accomplished alumni you’d like to see featured on the Bear Den? Tell us about them in the comments section below or send us a message on the Alumni Association’s Facebook page.
Photos from top to bottom: a young girl sees her face for the first time after undergoing surgery, Laura Nemeth standing in front of the Africa Mercy in a Pointe Noire port, Vernel—one of Laura’s young patients— is joyfully reunited with his family after recovering from his facial reconstruction surgery.
All images courtesy of Mercy Ships & Michelle Murrey