Sarah Christensen just returned to work at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor after volunteering for four months on the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship.

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Sarah Christensen, 27, has just started her nursing career, but she is already making big changes in the lives of people in need of medical help. Christensen just returned to work at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor after volunteering for four months on the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship.

“I was in Cameroon in the Port of Douala,” Christensen said. “I saw around 150 women health patients and possibly over 1,000 surgeries in the four months I was there.”

Christensen moved to Gig Harbor from Bremerton after graduating with her nursing degree in 2012, and she works at St. Anthony as a surgical nurse.

“My cousin was a volunteer on the ship over 10 years ago as a housekeeper,” she said. “I really liked her story and decided it was something I wanted to do.”

Mercy Ships, a Christian nonprofit organization, has been operating hospital ships around the world since 1978. According to Mercy Ship’s website, Africa Mercy was obtained by the organization in 1999 and is the largest nongovernmental hospital ship in the world, big enough to have effectively doubled the annual medical capacity of her predecessors.

“It started in Denmark as a rail ship,” Christensen said. “The queen would sail on the ship, I was told, and the queen’s lounge is now a conference room. The hospital is built where the rail cars were stored.”

Repurposed into a hospital, the ship anchors along the coasts of different countries and attends to the needs of those with little or no access to clean water or medical care. It will remain at the Port of Douala until June.

Christensen was trained in dealing with tropical illnesses before being assigned to serve in the woman’s ward, in particular with women who had been shunned by their villages and families for reasons beyond their control.

“She cared specifically for women patients who had free surgeries to cure obstetric fistulas,” said Pauline Rick, a spokeswoman for Mercy Ships. “This condition is a childbirth injury that occurred when their baby got lodged in the birth canal during delivery.”

Christensen said many pregnant women in the region face troublesome labor because they often have small frames from lack of nourishment.

“This caused days of torturous labor,” Rick said of one typical case. “To the mother’s horror, she delivered a stillborn child. But, then, if it could be worse, she found out that she was incontinent.”

Christensen and Rick said in many cultures around the Cameroon region women are seen as cursed and rejected by their communities if they deliver a stillborn baby or are found incontinent. Christensen said it was a joy to help some of these women through surgery and counseling.

“I had one patient who told me she had never felt love until she came upon our ship,” Christensen said. “She said she was healed even before the surgery. It was good to know, even if people are never physically healed, inside they can still have that healing.”

Some babies born to the women Christensen helped survived, and she said now and then a mother with a new infant would come back aboard the ship to show the nurses her child.

“We just loved seeing the babies,” Christensen said.

After surgery, many of the women patients were honored in a shipboard ceremony and party with their families to celebrate the patients’ “return to womanhood.”

“By the time they left, after a beautiful celebration with the nurses which included doing their hair, makeup, and giving them a new African dress and headdress, they were changed and hopeful once again for their futures,” Rick said. “Some of these women had been (incontinent) for decades before they were treated by Mercy Ships and cared for by Sarah. So, you can imagine the impact on their lives to be ‘dry’ again, and to reach that point with the tender care of your hometown volunteer.”

Christensen is now back at St. Anthony Hospital, where her co-workers waited to hear her stories about Africa.

“My boss and co-workers were really excited for me,” she said. “I just love it here in Gig Harbor.”

While glad to be back, Christensen said she is considering spending more time on Mercy Ships. “You go to help people and to give,” she said. “But once you are there they are blessing you. It is just an amazing experience, you expect to bless others but you get blessed.”