Fresno nurse boards hospital ship to help patients in Africa

The Fresno BeeJanuary 26, 2014 

Saint Agnes Medical Center nurse Sandy Ludwig traveled halfway across the world recently to spend three weeks on a massive hospital ship and help with all types of surgeries for the world's poorest of the poor.

Although Ludwig, 67, has spent her entire career in the medical field, her time in the operating rooms aboard the ship Africa Mercy was eye-opening.

Ludwig aided in multiple surgeries a day — anywhere from three general surgeries or specialized head and neck surgeries called maxillofacial, to 21 cataract surgeries daily. General surgeries included repairing hernias that were beyond anything seen in the U.S.; maxillofacial surgeries removed face-engulfing tumors by a tooth infection; and cataract surgeries restored sight for those who had expected to be partially blind forever.

"I've been in a lot of OR procedures, and to still learn is incredible," Ludwig said.

What impressed her the most was how the patients handled the surgeries, especially the pain. Most cataract patients endured their surgeries with no anesthesia, she said, and without flinching. Every patient was respectful, grateful and gentle.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Ludwig worked as a nurse for four years in the Army in Hawaii. After that, she worked in North Carolina and Colorado before arriving 16 years ago in Fresno to work at Saint Agnes, where she is an educator for surgical services.

Ludwig learned of the faith-based Mercy Ships organization by chance one night when she happened to see "60 Minutes" — a show she rarely watches — air a story about the medical mission of the Africa Mercy. The story reported that more than 450 volunteers from 35 nations live on board and provide medical services, including maxillofacial surgeries, to West Africans.

Ludwig's pastor, Dave Love of Clovis Hills Community Church, wasn't surprised she showed interest in Mercy Ships after she went on a mission trip to India with the church.

"Through the church, I've seen that she has a heart to serve. I've seen her faithfulness and willingness to serve others," Love said.

Volunteers are required to stay for at least two weeks, but some stay from six months to 26 years, said Mercy Ships spokeswoman Diane Rickard. Most are nurses, but others are surgeons, electricians, housekeepers, dentists and schoolteachers. There is a school, library, pool and laundry room on the ship, Rickard said. Everyone begins and ends their day together.

During Ludwig's stay, from the end of November into December, she lived in a cabin with four other people. Since she was on board during the Christmas season, the spiritual aspect of the organization was in full force. As usual, surgeons laid hands on patients and prayed for them before every surgery. On Christmas Eve, some crew members gathered on the dock and sang Christmas carols and prayed by candlelight.

Returning to the U.S. and Saint Agnes wasn't easy. Ludwig's "body clock" took some time to readjust, and catching up at work was challenging. She returned a few days before Christmas and misses the constant togetherness of the crew on Africa Mercy.

"It was definitely a great way for me to be winding down in my career," she said.

Ludwig said another stay on Africa Mercy is definitely on her long-term agenda.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6679 or

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