By Sandra GrayUMass Medical School Communications
Not originally trained as a nurse, Costas invested additional years of education and on-the-job experience in order to fulfill her dream to serve as a Mercy Ships nurse. She first learned about Mercy Ships at a lecture she attended in 1999, while pursuing her bachelor of science degree in botany. She enjoyed the field, but realized it would not provide the degree of human interaction and service she sought. Immediately after the lecture, Costas said she knew that “Mercy Ships opened a door to serve people and travel and work overseas.”
But first, she had to become a nurse. She returned to school and earned a second bachelor’s degree in nursing at UMass Boston in 2005. Still needing at least two years of professional experience in order to become a nurse on the Africa Mercy, her next stop was at Massachusetts General Hospital. There Costas spent two years in the organ transplant unit followed by two years in the plastic surgery and burn unit—both excellent preparation for the serious and often unusual cases she would encounter on the surgical ship. Finally ready to board the Africa Mercy in 2009, her dream was a long time in the making, she recalled.
With its mission to bring hope and healing to the world's forgotten poor, Mercy Ships is a global charity that has operated a fleet of hospital ships in developing nations since 1978. The Africa Mercy on which Costas served is a state-of-the-art floating hospital that docks in a different West African country each year to provide medical care—most notably, plastic and reconstructive surgery—that would otherwise be unavailable or unaffordable. Over the years, Africa Mercy volunteers have treated hundreds of thousands children and adults in 15 sub-Saharan countries.
As one of a crew of nurses from more than 35 different countries, Costas progressed during her three tours from being a ward nurse, to a charge nurse, to the ship’s nursing plastic surgery team leader. In that role, she trained a team of 15 nurses in wound care and oversaw the care of plastic surgery patients on the ward. She said she was quite nervous at first about having so much responsibility. “I was in a nurse practitioner role without being one. I wanted to be better-trained,” Costas said.
Thrust into training and leadership roles that she would not necessarily have encountered at that stage in her nursing career in the United States, Costas made her next mission-driven decision: to pursue a master’s degree in order to become a nurse practitioner and be fully qualified to combine advanced patient care with team leadership and nursing education, both in the United States and abroad.
Recently, Costas’ involvement with Mercy Ships and her GSN coursework in the traditional adult acute/critical care track with nurse educator subspecialty converged in her final project for the course Advanced Nursing Science: Teaching and Curriculum Development for Nurse Educators. She was granted permission to fulfill the project’s requirements to develop, implement and reflect on a teaching plan through a course she gave while visiting the Africa Mercy for a brief vacation in May 2012. There Costas gave a one-hour lecture, “Promoting Wound Healing: Wound Care Practices and Products Aboard the Africa Mercy” as a part of the weekly nurse evening education sessions offered on the ship.
“Many wound care products from manufacturers around the world are donated to Mercy Ships, but often the nurses are unfamiliar with the products and their indications for use,” Costas wrote. “The inspiration for this education session was to empower the nurses for best practice with regard to wound care, to most effectively utilize the wound care products available to them aboard the Africa Mercy and to promote successful wound healing in the patient population of West Africa.”
Costas brushes aside the accolades she receives for serving those in need, insisting that she gets more than she gives. “The people are so inspirational in what they deal with and how they persevere. The surgeries are life-transforming. That’s the joy of the work.”
Scheduled to graduate in 2013, Costas envisions spending six months abroad and six months in the United States each year. She is already contemplating her next international mission, perhaps to teach nursing in India—a need she learned about at the annual international medical mission conference at which she represents Mercy Ships. “I like the idea of leaving a legacy by teaching local people and empowering them to be more independent and self-sustaining,” she said. “That’s the direction I feel I’m moving in next.”