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Have mercy: Spokane newlyweds go on medical mission to Madagascar

When he got down on his knee, she thought he was going to fall.

For a moment, she feared they would both end up in the water. They had been hiking around Palouse Falls and, unbeknownst to her, he had tucked away a ring.

Six months later, the newlyweds – both nurses in Spokane – decided they wouldn’t make any big life changes during their first year of marriage.

Within four months, they applied for positions in Africa.

Kate and Kevin Reed celebrated their first anniversary in Madagascar, where they’re volunteering with Mercy Ships, an international, faith-based nonprofit that provides free medical care aboard floating hospitals around the world.

The couple are six months into their 10-month adventure and glad they still have four months to go.

“I don’t think it would feel quite complete if we were leaving right now versus staying until June,” Kate said in a telephone interview from aboard the Africa Mercy, the couple’s current home base as well as workplace.

It’s a short commute.

“The hospital is on deck three and our cabin is on deck four, so we pretty much head down the stairs and we’re at work,” Kevin said.

Mercy Ships, founded in 1978, has sent vessels to 581 ports in 57 countries, according to its website at www.mercyships.org.

“A ship is the most efficient platform to deliver a state-of-the-art-hospital to regions where clean water, electricity, medical facilities and skilled personnel is limited to nonexistent,” it reads. “And because more than 75 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a port city, a hospital ship can reach many people who need care.”

Have mercy

Kate, 32, and Kevin, 30, became interested in Mercy Ships before they met. Both learned of the organization through word of mouth.

“Before I was even a nurse, I thought it would be cool to be on a hospital ship in Africa,” Kate said. But, “It seemed like a really far-out-there dream.”

Kevin met a church friend who had worked aboard Mercy Ships. “That’s when I really started to think about it as a possibility,” he said. “I like helping people.

“Having grown up with parents who were missionaries, it was something I was born into, but I didn’t actively participate. I was along for the ride. This seemed like a cool way to actually be serving and giving of myself using skills I had learned.”

His parents were missionaries in Papua New Guinea, where he was born and raised and attended high school. But his mother had grown up in Spokane. And in 2004, after a year of college in Indiana, Kevin moved to Spokane, where he lived until leaving for Africa last year.

Kate grew up in Alaska, moving to Gig Harbor with her parents when she was 11. After high school, she attended the University of Washington, graduating in 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts in communication. After working for a few years, she said, “I realized I really wanted to be a nurse.”

So she went back to school, attending Bates Technical College in Tacoma and becoming a licensed practical nurse in 2011. Two years later, she became a registered nurse through Tacoma Community College. That spring, she moved to Spokane and started working at Providence Urgent Care, an emergency clinic at East Fifth Avenue and South Division Street.

“Little did I know that less than a minute away was Kevin at the ICU, and I hadn’t met him yet,” she said.

Kevin was working in the adult intensive care unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center after earning a Bachelor of Science in nursing in 2008 through a partnership between Eastern Washington University and Washington State University.

They met at a backyard barbecue in late summer 2013. Most people at the party, including Kevin, went to the same church: New Community.

“We found out we were both nurses and we had similar interests and started talking,” he said. “I asked her out a few days later.”

On their first date on Sept. 1, they went for sushi at the Wave Island Sports Grill and Sushi Bar in downtown Spokane, then headed to Pig Out in the Park to see the Spin Doctors.

“There was something about him that I couldn’t help but want to keep being around him,” Kate said. “The more I spent time with him, the more I knew I wanted to not be without him. I came to realize if I was going to be happy with someone I wanted it to be him and if I was going to be irritated with someone I wanted it to be him. He’s the kindest person that I know, and he’s the kind of person that I want to influence me in my life.”

Kate and Kevin married Sept. 20, 2014, on the riverside lawn at New Community Church, then honeymooned at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

In January 2015, they applied to Mercy Ships. They were accepted in April and, soon after, offered 10-month slots. Initially, the couple had wanted to go for a shorter time, maybe three or six months.

“It just seemed risky to do longer,” Kate said. “We’re not getting income for basically 12 months.”

In fact, they are paying for the volunteer experience. A monthly fee of $630 each – $1,260 total – covers room and board and other costs.

Housing for couples is limited. There are only 25 cabins for couples aboard the Africa Mercy, which has 474 berths in all. The hospital has another 82 beds.

“We talked about it. We prayed about it. We looked at finances. And we have partial support from family and friends. We’re going to be fine,” Kate said. “God is good and will provide for us.”

Into Africa

The Reeds moved their belongings into a friend’s basement, packed two duffel bags apiece and flew out of Seattle on Aug. 10. The ship, delayed in dry dock, met them in Madagascar two weeks later.

Ever since, they’ve been stationed aboard the ship in the capital port city of Toamasina, formerly Tamatave, on the island country’s east coast, where, Kevin said, “it’s rainy and very green.” Each works 40 hours a week in the ship’s hospital.

She’s assigned to A ward, where patients – many of them children who suffered trauma or were born with deformities – recuperate from orthopedic surgery. He’s assigned to D ward, which specializes in head and neck surgery. Patients suffer from facial tumors and cleft lips and palates as well as the effects of noma, a bacterial infection that can degrade the bones and tissues of the face and rob patients of basic facial functions such as smiling, eating and speaking.

“Within a couple of days, they’re left with a very disturbing wound,” Kevin said. “Ninety percent of the time they die from it. The 10 percent that survive are left with very terrible scars.”

Kevin said he hadn’t heard of the disease before serving aboard the African Mercy, where – so far – he’s cared for one patient who underwent reconstructive surgery needed because of noma.

She’s 24. Her name is Tahina. It means “blessed” in Malagasy.

“She had the infection as a baby, so her whole life she had this big gaping hole in her face and has been treated differently because of it,” Kevin said. “When she first showed up, she had her head wrapped in a scarf and would never show her face. She was very withdrawn and kind of reluctant to be here.

“What’s been cool is to see her change as a person – her energy, her confidence – over time as the surgeries have happened and we showed her love and acceptance. She got to a point where she stopped covering her face. Now, she comes up and gives us hugs and smiles.”

They communicate with patients – most of whom speak only Malagasy – largely through translators. French is also spoken in Madagascar, but it’s not as common among the impoverished people that Mercy Ships aims to serve.

“They have screening days where people will come to basically stand in line to wait and see a doctor to see if they have a problem that can be treated,” Kevin said. “Some people, I think, can travel two, three, maybe even four days, to get here. … For a lot of these patients, if we weren’t here, they literally would die soon. It feels very rewarding to be doing something so real and so tangible that’s going to affect people for the rest of their lives.”

Patients typically come with caregivers, who don’t leave when visiting hours are over but stay for the duration of treatment. Caregivers, often a parent, sleep on mattress on the floor underneath patients’ beds.

“Sometimes, they have siblings that are running around, too. So that’s fun,” Kate said. “We do lots of nursing work and also lots of activities because there are lots of kids. We sit and color or play a game.” One girl painted her nails during some down time.

“We find ways we’re the same,” Kate said. “It makes me realize we are all people and we can connect on some level, even if there are language or cultural differences.”

Good faith, close quarters

If it wasn’t for Mercy Ships, the Reeds might never have made it to Madagascar. To encourage and inspire others, they’re sharing their experiences on their blog at https://reedsinmadagascar.wordpress.com, writing once or twice a month.

“Anyone that has a feeling like they might want to do it should do it. It seems a little intense. It seems like a lot,” said Kate, who described her own upbringing as “a little sheltered.”

But, she said, “I think people might be surprised how far they can go out of their comfort zone. It’s worth going out and actually doing it now, not someday.”

Kevin agrees: “It’s cool to go to a different part of the world and see a different culture and be around so many people from around the world. It’s a very enriching environment.”

Each year, some 1,600 people from 45 countries volunteer with Mercy Ships. During their time off, they can explore the port or other parts of the country. But they can’t stay out too late. Curfew is 9 p.m.

“We spend most of our time on the ship,” said Kevin, likening it to a floating city. “You walk out your door and you see people in the hallways. There’s a lounge hangout area where people can sit and talk.”

There isn’t a lot of privacy or space. That took some getting used to.

“We do have a little curtain we can use to separate the bed area from (the living room). But it’s definitely not a big living space,” Kevin said. “We have so much more time around each other than we had before, and there are some challenges with that. There are times when we get irritated with each other. We just talk through it.”

Overall, “I think it’s been very beneficial for our marriage,” Kate said. “Being in such close quarters puts us in a position to really talk. I feel like this is pulling us together.”

The Reeds are scheduled to leave Madagascar in early June, when the ship will go in for maintenance in South Africa. Meantime, the couple is concentrating on “being present and continuing to grow while taking care of (patients),” Kate said.

“It’s been a different and a growing experience,” she said. “I think I’m in the process of being changed.

“(The patients) are very happy and grateful, and it’s humbling for me because I just can’t really imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes and be so happy and grateful for someone like me coming who has a much easier life.”

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