In poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa, conditions such as a club foot, facial tumors and cataracts are debilitating and in many cases deadly.

Birth marks ostracize people from their communities. Complications from traumatic childbirth leave women shamed and in pain.

“Those poor women aren’t sewn up correctly, which leads to incontinence and being outcast in their communities,” said Jennifer Daggett, a Center Grove area resident and nurse.

Even basic medical care is scarce. Complicated surgeries to correct these types of issues are nearly impossible to find. So teams of medical professionals, including Daggett, are bringing their services to them in a nearly 500-foot-long ship.

Story continues below gallery

Daggett is spending two weeks aboard the Africa Mercy while docked in Cotonou, Benin, on Africa’s western coast. As the world’s largest private floating hospital, the ship’s crew will provide important medical care to impoverished parts of the world.

She’ll join a crew from around the world volunteering to repair facial deformities, such as tumors and cleft palates, mend injuries sustained to women during childbirth and perform dozens of other surgical procedures for people.

The mission is a culmination of 15 years of going back to school, earning a nursing degree and establishing herself in the medical field. Though it has been a difficult journey, the chance to finally do this work has been extremely rewarding.

“With anything huge, whether it’s going to college or something else, you have to have a deep calling in your heart, because it’s going to be hard,” Daggett said. “You can’t do something like this for someone else. All along the way, I never wavered that this was what God wanted me to do.”

Mercy Ships is an international, faith-based organization that provides medical care in developing areas where it is otherwise unavailable. The Africa Mercy, which is currently moored at Cotonou, Benin, contains five operating rooms, a four-bed recovery area, intensive care and an 80-bed care ward.

According to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, an estimated 5 billion people do not have access to safe, affordable surgical care. What Mercy Ships does is vital, said Keith Brinkman, Indianapolis native and programs administration manager on-board Africa Mercy.

“Surgery is an integral component of a properly functioning health system – all people should have access to safe and high quality surgical and anesthesia care,” he said via email. “We wish to enhance the standard of care in the surgical ecosystem in the local hospitals and health care system.”

Brinkman has been serving full-time on Mercy Ships since 1989. Though he has family in Martinsville, Plainfield and the Center Grove area, he spends the entire year working on the Africa Mercy or in surrounding countries that it docks at.

Each month, about 100 volunteers arrive to work on the ship, while another 100 finish their service. Mercy Ships relies on the short-term crew to carry out its vital mission, Brinkman said.

“We are making an impact in people’s lives,” he said. “We hear our patients share how their lives are changed. Our medical training participants share that what they have learned and how it will help them take better care of their patients and that they will train others.”

Daggett first learned about the Mercy Ships from her parents, who after retirement volunteered to do non-medical work on three separate missions. Around the same time, Daggett’s sister had a stroke. When Daggett stayed with her in the hospital, it was her first experience witnessing what nurses do up close.

The combination of those experiences ignited a passion in Daggett. She was a stay-at-home mom with four small children, the youngest of which, Calvin, had just entered kindergarten.

“I was starting to think about what I wanted to do after I ‘grow up.’ I had been home for 11 years at that point, and liked my freedom,” she said. “So I tried to figure out what I could do that gave me more flexibility.”

Daggett had studied and earned her business degree from the University of Colorado. She had worked in a law office prior to having children. So the medical field would be an entirely new world for her.

Though she had a bachelor’s degree, only some of those credits would work for her entrance into nursing school. So Daggett enrolled again in college, taking courses such as physiology and anatomy at IUPUI before enrolling in the nursing program at Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus.

Throughout her training, she worked in the emergency room at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. A fellowship with Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital introduced her to the operating room.

“It is a very intense environment, with a very steep learning curve and very serious work,” she said. “There were a lot of challenges to get used to. It took over a year before I started to feel comfortable there.”

When the combination of studies, nursing and home life weighed down on her, Daggett leaned on her faith. One of the most striking Bible verses that she drew strength from was Psalm 37, which extolled her to “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.”

Other verses, such as Joshua 1:9 and selections from Thessalonians, urged her to stay strong when doing God’s work.

“These verses sum up my challenges, my struggles, my calling and my confidence,” she said. “My faith prompts me to share my blessings. I have been very blessed with family, friends, church, community and professional experiences that have prepared me for this moment. I want to be a blessing to others.”

In 2016, Daggett graduated first in her nursing class of 230 people. That opened the door to applying for Mercy Ships.

Her husband, Ron, has been supportive through the entire journey, as have her children: Janalyn, 25; Jimmy, 24; Cathryn, 22 and Calvin, 20.

Daggett’s goal to work on a Mercy Ship has not only provided her with a new career path, but helped expose her kids in similar ways. All four are either nurses, attending medical school or finishing undergraduate degrees with an eye on medical fields.

The family has all gone on mission trips to El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, which provided them with experience that shaped their career plans.

On her journey, Daggett will be assisting in the operating rooms as surgeons deal with a wide variety of issues. Crew members come from all over the world, so to get ready, she has been studying basic medical equipment and how to communicate that with the surgeons.

A stack of flash cards with the picture of instruments, such as clamps and forceps, include photographs of the tool, and what it’s called in different languages.

“They’re trying to make sure what the physician asks for is what they get. So I cut these all out, and identify them by picture. I know what they’re going to ask for,” she said.

Daggett will work on the ship until March 5, and will fly home to Indiana afterwards. After she returns from her mission, she’ll bring that experience to her job as a neurosurgery nurse at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

“The thoughts are swirling through my mind: have I gotten prepared correctly? Am I going to be ready?,” she said. “I think there’s a very important life skill to be flexible. You have to be prepared academically, but still flexible enough to go with it. I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

The Daggett File

Jennifer Daggett

Home: Center Grove area

Occupation: Neurosurgery nurse at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital

Family: Husband Ron; children Janalyn, 25; Jimmy, 24; Cathryn, 22, and Calvin, 20.

Education: Graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in business; graduated from Indiana University School of Nursing in 2016.

At a glance

Mercy Ships

What: An international faith-based organization bringing safe, free surgical and anesthesia services worldwide to the poor. Since 1978, Mercy Ships delivered services to more than 2.56 million people.

About the Africa Mercy: The 498-foot-long ship has five operating rooms, a four bed recovery, intensive care for up to five individuals and 80 ward beds. The ship is docked at Cotonou, Benin, until June, when it is tentatively scheduled to dock in Cameroon from August to June 2018.

What do they do: Facial surgeries to relieve deformities caused by physical conditions such as tumors, cleft lip and cleft palate; reconstructive surgeries for burn victims; remedy traumatic childbirth injuries; dental, orthopedic and cataract surgeries; infrastructure and agricultural programs.

How to get involved: Both medical and non-medical volunteers are needed for the ship’s mission. Volunteer or learn more about at mercyships.org.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.