Saunders: Durham woman feeds her spirit by helping others in Congo

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 9, 2014 

Sure, I’ve said it. Chances are, you have, too.

Of course, all suck-ups make sure the boss is within earshot when we heartily proclaim, “Ooh, I love my job so much, I’d pay them to let me do it.”

Few among us would be willing to actually put our money behind such a statement.

Jamie Ray would, though – and did.

Ray quit her job as an acute-care nurse at the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center and set off for the Congo to treat people suffering such varied maladies as noma, cleft palates and lips, hand and foot abnormalities, cataracts and “huge thyroid goiters,” she said. Those are among the ones I could pronounce.

She worked on a ship aptly named Africa Mercy, a member of the fleet of Mercy Ships that dock around the world treating people who would otherwise never receive treatment.

A ‘60 Minutes’ spark

Like every other volunteer, Ray bought her own airplane ticket to Africa – “Quite expensive,” she said – and paid for her room and board on the ship.

“I had looked at doing this for years,” she said. “I just had never had enough nerve to do it. And last year when ‘60 Minutes’ ran that fantastic story … it just really lit a fire under me.”

I saw that same episode, I told her, and was sorry I had no skill that I could share with people in need.

“Don’t discount your value,” she said. “You’d be surprised.” She then told me about a local radio deejay who was on the ship and reported from it.

Pauline Rick, public relations coordinator for Mercy Ships, said volunteers from across North Carolina are on the ships.

A supportive spouse

Just having a desire to help isn’t always enough. An understanding spouse is essential, too. “I have a wonderful husband who gave me the courage to pick up and travel to parts unknown,” Ray said. “I’m pretty much a newlywed, so after 14 months of marriage for him to say, ‘You go on, and I will support you from home in every way possible,’ I was impressed.”

I’m impressed, too, and I’ve never even met the dude.

“His words were, ‘You did it for me when I was in Iraq. You were my support, … so now it’s my turn to do it for you,’ ” she recounted. Her husband recently retired from the Army.

The stars aligned in yet another way to allow Ray to become an angel of mercy aboard The Africa Mercy. “I left my job in January with the intention of doing some mission work and volunteering,” she said. “The annual leave I had not used gave me the money” to make the three-week trip.

How on earth – or, more accurately, on the sea – does Mercy Ships convince people to pay their own way to work for them? I asked Pauline Rick.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she said. “We have a unique business model that allows all the contributions to go directly to the ships” and not get devoured by “administrative costs.”

Something else was unique about the patients, Ray said: the depth of their gratitude and their desire to be among other patients in a ward.

“It was one of the most fascinating things to me,” she said. “Unlike in this country, where everybody wants a private room and we fuss if we get a semiprivate room – for an African, to put them in a private room is almost a punishment, an insult; because when they get sick or disfigured, their community ostracizes them, and they get isolated.”

On the ship, she said, “They (patients) are in a very busy, very full room, and they like it that way because they are so family oriented and community oriented. It was so amazing because when we would take somebody back to the ward after surgery, it wasn’t uncommon for one of the neighboring patients or families to come and check on the patient, or stay with the family member and support them. They may not know each other when they arrive … but they quickly accept and start interacting with each other.

“One of the most incredible rewards to what we do,” Ray said occurred each time some abnormality was eradicated and the person was able to re-enter society.

“You know how they say ‘the blessings you receive far exceed anything you put into it’? That’s very true,” she said. “To give them back the use of their arms or legs, to remove a huge tumor from their face or neck so they can be a part of their society again – what a beautiful gift to be a part of, being able to do that.

“I may have done some work for the African people,” she stated, “but what I got out of it – my spirit has been fed beyond words.”

Just from being able to hear her story, so has mine.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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