For Fort Worth nurse, mercy triumphs over the good life

Posted Saturday, Sep. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Stephanie Duncan had a job she loved, caring for young cancer patients at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. A supportive group of friends helped her through the emotional challenges of her nursing work.

Her parents were just a few hours away, in Tyler. Duncan lived in a nicely furnished Arlington apartment and even treated herself to a late-model Infiniti.

“I liked it,” she said of the luxury car, somewhat sheepishly.

But now the Infiniti belongs to someone else, as do most of her other possessions. Two years ago, she decided to sell pretty much everything, leave her happy, comfortable life, say goodbye to friends and family. She chose instead a much different existence.

Home today is the world’s largest hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, docked since August in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo on Africa’s West Coast. Each day, Duncan and scores of other doctors and nurses, volunteers like herself, greet a steady stream of afflicted African men, women and children, people who are invited aboard for free surgery and other medical treatment that they could never afford otherwise. Huge facial tumors are removed, burns treated, broken bones set.

Duncan, 32, supervises a postoperative ward.

“My patients are amazing,” she said by telephone on a recent day, speaking from a tiny cabin she shares with three others. “They come in scared and unsure of what’s going to happen, and they have this hope they are going to be healed. We get to welcome them onto the ship, love them and encourage them, and then they go to surgery and come back a different person, essentially.”

She laughed about the strange twist her life has taken.

“I do realize it’s unusual,” Duncan said. “All of my friends remind me how unusual this is. But it’s not unusual here. There are 400 people surrounding me that are of the same mind, giving up home to come and serve.”

There are great sacrifices, financial and otherwise. She and the other volunteers receive no salary and actually pay several hundred dollars a month to help cover insurance and expenses.

“But I don’t see that a lot of the time, just the rewards,” Duncan said. “What I get to do here way outweighs that, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The 400 volunteers aboard the Africa Mercy come from 30 nations. Most stay for a few months. Duncan will soon decide whether to stay for a third year.

“I could see myself staying,” she said.

Journey of mercy

She grew up in Tyler in a close-knit family that was deeply involved in Marvin United Methodist Church. The church was renowned for its financial support of missionaries and regularly sent its own members on distant trips.

Duncan was in sixth grade when she went out for the first time herself, to a small town somewhere in Missouri. Three years later came a trip to the Virgin Islands, then Africa, South America and three trips to work with orphans in Siberia.

“I realized at a very early age that this was something I was passionate about,” she said. “Wherever I went in the world, there was a need, and often it was a need that our group could meet. And I realized that they are people just like right next door at home, that they need food and water and shelter and medical care.”

Growing up, Duncan was also aware of the organization called Mercy Ships, which had its international headquarters just a few miles from Tyler. It was founded by Texas businessman Don Stephens, who bought the first hospital ship in 1978.

He and his family lived on board for the next 10 years, supervising medical volunteers in some of the world’s poorest ports.

In the years since, Mercy Ships has become one of the world’s most celebrated humanitarian endeavors, earning praise from Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

This spring, the organization and its flagship, the Africa Mercy, were featured on 60 Minutes.

During her college years at Texas A&M, Duncan got a firsthand look at the operation when a Mercy Ships vessel was docked in Galveston.

“I took a tour, seeing the cabins and bunk beds,” she said. “Other than that, it was really cool. I liked the concept, but … that’s one thought I remember: ‘This is not where God is going to call me.’ It’s a little ironic. That’s where I live now. On the top bunk. It’s not that bad.”

A week before earning her degree in community health, Duncan came down with meningitis and nearly died. The care she received during her illness inspired her to enroll in nursing school at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“I went to nursing school thinking I wanted to do medical missionary work after graduation,” she said. “Instead, I went to work at Cook Children’s and fell in love with what I was doing there. The patients are there for such a long time, so you really build relationships with them and their families. It’s hard. All of your patients don’t make it. But you get to be there and walk through that journey with them.”

Her missionary work was limited then to short trips to South America.

“I kind of put my heart into [the hospital work] and got settled,” she said.

‘So many lessons’

For more than two decades, Melissa Brigman has been the mission director at Marvin United Methodist, one of the people who nurtured Duncan’s passion for service from the beginning.

“She always sought the opportunity to reach out to those that were in any way disenfranchised, were suffering or hurting,” Brigman said. “She was always in the middle of it. She had what I call a mission heart.”

A few years ago, the Tyler church started supporting Mercy Ships financially. In early 2011, Brigman flew to Togo and spent two weeks on board the Africa Mercy.

“After I had been on the ship the first day or two, I was looking around to see all these great people who were working on the ship,” Brigman said. “So many of them were young adults. So many of them were from around the world.

“Just seeing their enthusiasm and their passion for serving, how they lived in community, I thought, ‘You know what? Stephanie would just have a blast doing this.’ I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

“When my plane landed in Dallas, even before I called my husband to tell him I was back safe, I called Stephanie and said, ‘You were made for Mercy Ships. You have to do this.’”

Duncan took a two-month leave from her hospital job that year. Even after life in a pediatric oncology ward, she was not prepared for the intensity of her experiences on the ship.

“I felt it was like a roller coaster those two months,” she said. “Patients come in with such need and they’ve lived with no hope for so long, and now we’re offering free surgery. Just the emotion, the day before their surgery, the fear in their eyes. Then, after the surgery, there had been a huge tumor and now it’s gone.

“Another thing that struck me about that first trip was the joy that the patients have,” she said. “They may have nothing, but they have joy in their hearts. I saw how important their families, relationships, communities were to them. You don’t see that at home. We can have everything we want at home and still not love life, enjoy life day to day. There are so many lessons.”

She was quickly ready to commit long term.

“Someone on the ship told me, ‘You know what? Go home,’” Duncan said. “You still have a job. Wait until the emotion dies down and then see where you’re supposed to be.’”

A simple life

She returned to Cook Children’s, her family and friends, her apartment and car, but a restlessness set in before long. She thought about moving to a different city or a different department at the hospital.

“Mercy Ships wasn’t what I was thinking about,” Duncan said. “I was at Starbucks with a friend and we were talking through life. She said, ‘What about Mercy Ships?’ We talked through all my hesitations. By the end of the conversation, Mercy Ships had gone to the top of the list.”

She was hesitant partly because she would have to leave her family for a long-term commitment overseas. Within a few days, she had the blessing of her parents.

“They just released me from that to come and serve,” Duncan said.

The issue of money was more problematic.

“That’s the kicker,” Duncan said. “We actually have to pay to be here. The first two months was fine. This was something I wanted to do. I had saved some money.

“But coming back for a year, I didn’t have enough in savings. That was something that I was really nervous about in the beginning. I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want people to pay my salary.”

Enter Marvin United Methodist Church.

“Our church got very involved financially,” Brigman said. “We all loved Stephanie and wanted her to be able to do this. We consider her one of our missionaries.”

So Duncan resigned at the hospital, let go of her apartment and sold most of her belongings.

“It was hard, honestly,” she said. “It was hard to get rid of those possessions. But in the end, it was a relief to know that I didn’t need them. They are just possessions, and I can replace them.”

In January 2012, she flew to meet the Africa Mercy where it was docked in Togo. Except for two short visits to Texas, she has been on the ship ever since.

“Life is so much simpler here,” she said. “When I came home, I went into a Wal-Mart and I went, ‘Oh my gosh. Look at how many options for toothpaste there are. I can’t make a decision on what toothpaste I need.’ It’s hard to see that. I feel like people live in such excess and they aren’t even aware of what’s going on on the other side of the world.”

Duncan knows she will return to her life in the United States in the next few years. When she does, a luxury car probably won’t be parked in her driveway.

“I’m not advocating that everyone sell everything they have and give all their money to the poor,” she said. “I’m not going to go that far. It’s not to say that I want to live in poverty when I come home or anything like that. It’s just to recognize that it’s not possessions that make your life. It’s not the more, the better.

“It’s about friendships, relationships and just really investing in people instead of things,” Duncan said. “I’ve learned that from the people here.”

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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