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Nurse gives breath of life to patients on board Mercy Ships

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Shayne Sewell
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Office
Lt. Col. Margaret Schmidt, a flight nurse with the 459th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, uses her military skills, nurse anesthetist expertise, as well as her goodwill, to give children and adults in far away places a chance to breathe, literally.

As a nurse anesthetist for 27 years, providing an airway for patients is her mission. Colonel Schmidt volunteers with an organization called Mercy Ships, a global charity and a leader in delivering free health care and community services in non-developed countries.

She works specifically on cases involving tumors that impede a patient's airway to anesthetize for surgery," she said.

Colonel Schmidt has volunteered eight times to work on the Mercy Ship Anastasis, traveling to Ghana, South Africa, Guinea, Bnin, Gambia, and Sierra Leone.

Most recently in January 2007, Colonel Schmidt traveled to the Port of Tema, Ghana, for three weeks administering anesthesia to patients who primarily underwent maxillofacial surgeries.

Maxillofacial surgeries involve removing life-threatening tumors to the face and neck, and repair of cleft lip and palate.

Working in a small space on the ship, overcoming language barriers and dealing often with stressful, life-threatening cases, Colonel Schmidt brings her compassionate demeanor to these patients to help give them a brighter future. She said she found it "challenging when the ship would turn to one side" and the gas machine would start to roll.

The ship's blood bank is drawn from the ship's crew. One time we did not have a crew member that matched our patient's blood, so we found a local missionary who was a match. He was glad to help and very happy to get soda and cookies for it."

Colonel Schmidt cited additional challenges, such as having patients with children who suffer anemia, are underweight or malnourished from worms, or have malaria.
"This year in Tema, the desert sands from Harmattan blew sand all day and the children had respiratory infections."

Despite the challenges, however; Colonel Schmidt said getting through long and difficult surgeries and seeing patients doing well afterward make it worthwhile.
"I especially appreciate working with individuals, many of whom are long-term devoted and selfless volunteers or staff on the ship," the colonel said. "They give their time and talents to help people who are in need."

The colonel added that she meets new people each year and often stays in touch.
Though all the cases are memorable, Colonel Schmidt recalled one case in particular.

"I anesthetized an eight-month-old patient named Mamadou who was on the brink of death weighing only 2.2 kilograms upon arriving to the ship. After five months of an aggressive feeding program, and 12.2 pounds later, his cleft palate and cleft lip were repaired," the colonel explained.

"Mamadou's mother cried because she was happy when she saw her son appearing'normal' after his surgery. It's good to know that a child somewhere is going to be accepted in his village since you helped them through surgery," she said.

The colonel recalled instance after instance of children in desperate need of help whose lives were positively impacted by Mercy Ships and the dedication of people of such as Colonel Schmidt.

"I remember the children who had twilight emergencies,
Colonel Schmidt said. "One three-year-old hemorrhaged after burn graft surgery and we had to transfuse her and return to surgery immediately -- she did well."

No matter the severity of the medical condition, the volunteers strive to bring a sense of dignity and normalcy to their patients' lives.

"It is a very serious responsibility to undertake surgery on these patients and I am always grateful to see them doing well after the operation," the colonel said. "I have never lost a patient and appreciate all the prayers of friends and family when I go to work on the ship."

According to their Web site, Mercy Ships have performed more than 32,500 surgeries. They have treated more than 212,000 people in village medical clinics and have performed more than 183,000 dental treatments.

They have delivered more than $60 million worth of medical equipment, hospital supplies and medicines and completed 900 community development projects including construction of schools, clinics, orphanages, water wells and agriculture programs.
Mercy Ships welcomes volunteers.

To learn more about Mercy Ships, check out