Mercy Ships Engineers Find Purpose Volunteering on Board Civilian Hospital Ships
If you read our earlier article about Deborah Nutsugah working as a Biomedical Engineer, you might wonder who else works out in the field on Mercy Ships.
Deborah Nutsugah knew from a young age that she wanted to be an engineer.
“I always wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “That is how I get happy, when I can solve a problem.”
Growing up in her home country of Ghana, Deborah learned from her uncle, a mechanical technician. But when it came time to choose a career path, she didn’t go the typical route.
“Even though I had a huge interest in engineering, I also wanted to do something which can have the ability to help save people’s lives,” she said. “I wanted to see my talent directly impacting lives.”
So, Deborah became a biomedical engineer. As it turned out, that decision opened the door for her to volunteer in one of the most unique settings imaginable – supporting highly specialized surgical teams on board the largest civilian hospital ships in the world.
But it’s not just biomedical engineers who are needed on board the Mercy Ships fleet. All engineers have a vital role to play.
Engineering Opportunities on Board
Mercy Ships is a global nonprofit that operates two fully equipped hospital ships: the Global Mercy® and the Africa Mercy®. These ships bring free surgery and medical training to ports in West Africa, to strengthen local healthcare systems and make surgical care accessible to all.
The Mercy Ships fleet is run by dedicated volunteer professionals, and they’re not all doctors and nurses. The crew includes sailors, cooks, HR professionals – and engineers, who keep the ships running day to day.
“The biggest and most urgent roles aboard the ship are technical,” said Mercy Ships Technical Recruiter Elijah Evans. “Engineers, ETOs, electricians, mechanic fitters, hotel techs.” (Learn more about any of these volunteer opportunities here)
Types of roles
Most of these roles require a three-month to one-year commitment. Historically, Evans and his team have recruited using ad campaigns and job boards, even reaching out directly to qualified candidates via LinkedIn. But the field has become more competitive.
“We’ve had to get creative in the way that we pursue these roles,” he said.
Mercy Ships recruiters are connecting with social media groups, unions, and schools in order to broaden their reach and find the right candidates.
Evans said even the private sector is struggling to hire engineers right now, with many jobs providing sign-on bonuses as an incentive.
“The reality is that whenever we talk to people, you know, that can’t be the basis of the discussion,” he said. “It can’t be, ‘OK, here’s how much money we can offer you.”
Instead, Evans said, it’s a special kind of person who chooses to take time off from a paying job to donate their time and skills. But the payoff is immeasurable.
“You get to see children that are healed, that would never have gotten healed before,” he said. “You get to see mothers, you get to see fathers, you get to see brothers and sisters, live when they either hadn’t truly lived before, or they just suffered their entire existence. And that’s something that is profound to work on.”
There’s also a professional benefit, Evans said. Early-career engineers will find an opportunity to grow in the field and be mentored by those with much more experience.
“We do have examples of people coming in, learning entire new skillsets, and pursuing education while they’re on board,” he said. “On the flip side, you look at people who have worked for many, many years as engineers, who have a lot to offer. … You get to teach, you get to impart what you’ve learned to this next generation of people who are actively pushing forward a vision.”
The Crucial Role of Biomedical Engineers
Just as important as other types of engineers, biomedical engineers are always needed on board.
“They play a huge part in our surgeries, because if we can’t safely operate on somebody, then we have to stop surgeries,” said Mercy Ships Medical Recruiter Kimberly Ames. “If something breaks, they can fix it. So, they’re playing a very important role on board.”
Ames said there are three biomedical engineer roles available:
Senior Biomedical Technician (two-year commitment)
Biomedical Technician (six-month commitment)
Biomedical Project Assistant (four-week commitment)
A season volunteering on board, Ames said, can be a welcome change from the day-to-day for a biomedical engineer.
“There’s less charting,” she said. “You actually can follow your patient from beginning to end, so you might get to see a full process from pre-surgery to post-surgery. … And it could just remind you of why you wanted to be this when you grew up.”
Volunteers may also have the chance to mentor local biomedical technicians in West Africa.
“Our medical capacity building team does biomedical training with the local healthcare systems,” Ames said. “So that’s been very exciting to see the model of Mercy Ships discipling themselves out of a job.”
Ames said in her previous experience as a corporate recruiter, she’s seen this type of volunteering have a positive impact on careers.
“Hiring managers want to see volunteer information on your resume,” she said. “It puts you a little bit ahead of the others.”
‘An Amazing Journey’
A volunteer role with Mercy Ships doesn’t come with annual raises or a company car. There are no monetary incentives to help the organization retain good workers. But year after year, volunteers continue to come back.
“It kind of tugs at your heartstrings,” Ames said. “And the ship itself just makes you want to come back.”
Ames said the community on board, and the opportunity to connect with people from so many different cultures, often draw volunteers to extend their service or return the next year. And because engineering roles are so crucial to the operation of the Mercy Ships fleet, many of the positions offer the opportunity to bring a whole family along.
That was the case for former Chief Engineer Andy Cole, who truly found his place on board.
“I love the ocean,” he said. “The open seas are such special places.”
For Cole, the combination of working a challenging and rewarding job – and sharing the experience with the people he loves most – was a dream come true.
“Having my family on board and traveling to many countries in West Africa, and getting to know African cultures, is so enriching,” he said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Joining Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships is always looking for talented engineers who are ready to give back.
Thank you so much Tim and Caroline and your entire team for sharing this story. You are very amazing people.