“I like to encourage,” says Joan. “That’s me – I’m an encourager.”

“Would you like to learn how to tie a suture?” says Joan Kotze (ZAF), winking at me from behind a makeshift operating table set up in E ward of the Africa Mercy. Dr. Romaric, a Beninise surgeon cuts in, as if on cue. He grabs one of the beginner’s suture strings – a rope about as wide as my pinkie – and shakes it once, as if to get our attention. He begins to work it through his fingers, and I attempt to follow. “You’ve gotta get your smoker fingers on point,” says Joan, miming a cigarette to her lips, a serious half-smile playing around its corners. I take the tip and finish tying my first suture…”Bravo!” says Joan.

I’m writing a short piece about the Essential Surgical Skills course Joan’s helping facilitate. It’s the first time I’m really meeting her. “How’s the course been so far?” I ask.

“Well, we drove all over town trying to get the pig for the suture practice, so that was quite an adventure.” she jokes. Her South African accent is reminiscent of vineyards and red grapes – dry but lilting. She goes on to offer me every bit of info I need, even flagging down the course facilitator – a British man, Dr. Pye, who describes surgery as “Artistry.”

Joan’s an executive assistant on the Mercy Ships Medical Capacity Building (MCB) team. “I really do enjoy that aspect of Mercy Ships” she says. Joan’s referring to one of the fastest-growing departments of the ship – MCB encapsulates courses like Essential Surgical Skills and Neonatal Resuscitation, train-the-trainer teaching methods, surgeon mentoring, Sterile Processing, WHO Checklist training…the list goes on and on. Each course, each interaction, both on ship and off, is designed to do just what Joan excels at – passing on new knowledge and encouraging West African doctors, nurses, midwives, etc in their work. “It’s not easy for most people to get the time off even to attend a course,” she says. “Some go straight from working a night shift to being on board all day – and it’s because they want the new knowledge.”

She’s right. Hospitals in West Africa are notorious for being understaffed and underfunded. Nurses are stretched to their limits taking care of patients and deciding which of the ten urgent cases is the most urgent. So…brushing up your skills? Learning new life-saving techniques for emergency response? Well – that’d be nice, but…

Fortunately, though, Joan encourages.

She’s never been a medical professional in a West African hospital, and she’s never faced the same trials as many, but she has stared down her own particular Goliaths. “Joan, she’s really been through a lot,” says a coworker, one Joan’s just sat with after a mind-bendingly difficult day.

“I never ever thought that the bad things, the sad things in my life, could actually be used for something positive,” she reflects, “But even the first patient that approached me..” she goes on to tell the story of a young man, an orphan, who turned out to be the same age as her son who died in a car crash. “It was good to know that, yes – our pasts can be sad, but they can be used for something better. It reminds me of that verse in Second Corinthians … “You can use God’s comfort to comfort others in time of need…” (2 Corinthians 1:4). So yes – I believe he’s given me comfort, and I can keep on sharing that with others.”

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