A seagoing mission of mercy

Nurse Megan Petock will pay her own way for a year of medical service aboard a hospital ship.

Posted: May 27, 2007

The photographs made the difference for nurse Megan Petock. They were stark and dramatic.

They showed hospital patients from Africa who had long been without medical treatment; they were shown before surgery, and after.

Petock, of Holland, pored over the Internet photos, then hopped a train to New York to see the exhibit in person. Before leaving the gallery, she made a personal commitment to volunteer herself aboard the floating hospital Mercy Ships.

That day is less than three weeks away. Petock, 23, will leave the home she grew up in and a job of caring for critically ill children to volunteer on a floating hospital off the coast of Liberia.

"When I looked at the pictures, I realized that kids in America are the same as kids in Liberia," Petock said. "They laugh, make funny faces, and want you to twirl them around until they get dizzy. You realize that your humanity is no greater than anyone else's."

For the next year, Petock will pay $525 a month to volunteer as a ward nurse for Mercy Ships. The nearly 30-year-old Christian charity provides free medical care in developing countries on ships converted into floating hospitals.

The group also helps the local communities with water, sanitation and agricultural projects; HIV/AIDS prevention; and construction of schools and clinics.

Medical staff perform about 7,000 surgeries a year, including cataracts and tumor removal, and cleft lip and palate reconstructions. The Africa Mercy ship has six operating rooms and a ward with 78 beds.

The year of service will cost Petock about $10,000. She must pay for her flight along with monthly room and board. She will live in a small cabin with at least three other volunteers near a country whose citizens have been displaced by a history of civil war.

She can't wait.

Petock has long envisioned spending her much of her career volunteering. She grew up in the church, attended her congregation's Calvary Christian Academy in Philadelphia, and spent time counseling youth and building houses in Panama. But for a while, it looked as if softball might be her calling.

Petock was an ace pitcher and threw for the Warrington Thunder travel team as a teenager. She decided to leave Calvary Christian Academy and attend Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster to play against the kind of competition that could get her noticed, and perhaps land a college scholarship.

But she wasn't happy. She became depressed, struggled with bulimia, and even had suicidal thoughts. Her parents didn't know about the intensity of her feelings until after Petock had conquered them and shared her struggle at graduation.

"Megan has always been such a pleaser, wanting to do the right thing," said Petock's mother, Linda. The years at Archbishop Wood were "when we butted heads the most" over issues, such as her parents' desire that she "dress modestly." But their disagreements were mild compared to the horror stories of other families, Linda Petock said.

Her daughter was in the throes of some serious self-examination. After the Columbine High School killings, Petock frequently thought about Cassie Bernall, the teenager who was killed after she said she believed in God.

"Here I am a Christian. I say I believe in God, but I asked myself, Do I really?" Petock said. "Or do I believe it because, my whole life, people told me to."

The turning point came during a week Petock spent as a counselor at a youth camp in Coatesville. Though she had been captain of Bible trivia teams at her church, Petock said she had never read the Bible at length by herself. This time, she read.

"That week was a life-changing week for me," Petock said. "I ended up quitting softball. I feel like I was being called to do something different."

Her decision was disappointing to a father who had envisioned an athletic scholarship for a daughter who once had such desire that she played part of a game with what turned out to be a broken hand.

"She had put in a lot of work," Tom Petock said. "But she said, 'No, I'd rather do stuff like this.' "

That realization led to the decision to go to Bucks County Community College and study nursing. She joined the staff at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in September 2005.

A youth group leader at Petock's church told Petock about the Mercy Ships photo exhibit by Scott Harrison, who had volunteered as the hospital photographer.

When Harrison returned from his trip, he gave up his life as a New York City nightclub promoter to start charity, a nonprofit that raises awareness about extreme poverty and the funds to fight it.

Petock has something similar in mind. She hopes to start an organization that will match medical professionals with organizations that provide medical services and need volunteers. In the meantime, Petock will blog about her experiences.

"Anything I can do to raise awareness about what's going on," Petock said. "Maybe someone else will do this because they saw what I got to do while I was there."

For Information

To read Megan Petock's blog, visit megisinafrica.blogspot.com.

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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