Molly Gacetta is seeing the world aboard a huge ship, but this is no luxury cruise.
The 28-year-old Olympia High School graduate is a registered nurse preparing to head out on her fourth expedition on one of the hospital ships run by global Christian charity Mercy Ships. Mercy Ships has been bringing free health care to developing nations with its fleet of hospital ships and volunteers since 1978.
Gacetta just returned from volunteering on the largest civilian hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, in Madagascar for eight months. She’ll return at the end of July for another five months. She previously served on ships in Togo and Congo.
She learned about Mercy Ships online.
“I really like their mission,” Gacetta said. “They just want to bring hope and healing to the poor and it’s really cool that they can take it to all different countries.”
The charity uses ships rather than land-based mobile hospitals because “a ship is the most efficient platform to deliver a state-of-the-art hospital to regions where clean water, electricity, medical facilities and personnel is limited or nonexistent,” its website says. “And, because more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of the coast, we can reach more people who need care.”
During her recent journey, Gacetta lived on board with 400 volunteers from 40 nations, caring for patients who received free operations.
Ally Jones, director of human resources on the Africa Mercy, said he had the privilege of serving with Gacetta on the ship.
“Molly is somebody who brings a lot of people together, both socially and professionally, in the ward. She has a very, very big smile that captures a whole room of people,” he said. “She’s our most experienced nurse, who delivers not just the best medical care but also the best social and spiritual care.”
Gacetta worked five days a week, alternating nights and weekends. Every day she prayed together with her teammates and did rounds with the surgeon and rehabilitation team. She worked from patient to patient until all the wound care and dressing changes were done.
There were planned activities on the ship or things to go to land and see because they could explore whenever the ship was in port. She said Madagascar is beautiful but not without need.
“The country is really beautiful but also really poor,” Gacetta said. “There’s a lot of very poor, isolated areas in the country without any health care.”
Mercy Ships has performed more than 78,000 operations, including cleft lip and palate repair, cataract removal, orthopedic procedures, plastic surgery, maxillofacial reconstruction and obstetric fistula repair.
The surgical treatments in Gacetta’s ward were orthopedic, plastic surgery and women’s health.
“We were bringing first-world care to third-world countries,” Gacetta said. “As a nurse, you learn a lot and see a lot of things you would never see here because it would never get to that point.”
She learned from the cultures of the places she worked and bonded closely with several of her patients.
“The people are amazing. They have so much less than we have and they are so happy,” Gacetta said. “They put a smile on your face, they’re loving and trusting, and they’re very interconnected. Everyone takes care of everyone, and seeing that puts perspective on life, I think.”
Gacetta recalled one patient, a girl named Lixia, who had her 16th birthday party aboard the ship with crew members.
Lixia was burned as a young girl and had limited functionality in one of her hands. The crew released contraction at the elbow, wrist and fingers so that she was able to use the limb.
She had a longer onboard healing time than most. Some surgeries kept patients onboard for only one night, but others, especially with plastic surgeries, would have to stay for several months.
“She’d get discouraged, but created her own little family there,” Gacetta said of Lixia.
Like many other patients, Lixia was scared, ashamed and used to hiding. But she learned that everyone was there to help her and love her.
“The transformation we saw in her from very quiet and reserved was pretty amazing to see,” Gacetta said. “Lixia even sang karaoke at her birthday party and everyone knew who she was.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Michigan, Gacetta worked as a nurse for two years in Chicago. She also lived in Seattle and worked at Harborview Medical Center.
“When I was in college, I had gone to Ghana for six weeks as a study abroad, and I always wanted to go back with nursing skills to help out in developing countries,” she said.
Gacetta hopes to continue using her nursing background to make positive global changes.
“People all over the world deserve access to health care,” Gacetta said. “It’s so rewarding to get to help people that wouldn’t get help otherwise.”