‘Miraculous’: How injury changed Deb’s life and saved others
IT WAS the "miraculous moment" that changed Deb Louden's life forever.
About 20 years ago, the then 13-year-old was at an event in Helidon and was set to have her second go on the slingshot bungee that had been set up.
Hundreds of people had gone before her. It was no biggie.
She was preparing herself to be launched back into the sky for her second adrenaline rush of the day.
Before she could blink, she was in the air. Then she was falling and nothing was stopping the fall, the device had broken.
Five, 10, 15 metres. Smack.
She broke her legs, her arms and smashed a foot.
"One of my femurs came out through my jeans, I lost a lot of blood," she said.
"I landed a metre away from a metal stake and barbed wire fence. The chance of spinal or head injuries from that height is enormous, but I only broke bones.
"I shouldn't have survived, it's miraculous."
Deb spent three and a half weeks in hospital and the next year going through recovery.
It was during that time she saw the impact nurses had on patients and the hope they can inspire in people.
She wanted to be a part of that and so she set her sights on nursing as a career.
Towards the end of high school her mum came home with a brochure for Mercy Ships, a faith-based organisation that operated a hospital ship that travelled to different countries in Africa.
The ship docks in a country's port for several months at a time, with most patients coming to the ship for treatment. Doctors, nurses and other crew members also visit local hospitals to upskill local practitioners and learn from one another.
All medical staff, and other crew members, are volunteers, and pay their own expenses.
"I thought it looked pretty cool and like something I'd want to do one day," she said.
"Some time later my older sister came home and said she wanted to go and volunteer with Mercy Ships, I said no that was my idea.
"We had a little argument, before I said no, this is ridiculous, we should go together."
There was only one caveat, Deb had to have two years experience as a nurse before she could volunteer on the ship.
So in 2009 after working as a graduate nurse for two years, Deb and her sister Sarah, who was a medical scientist at the time, began their Mercy Ship journey.
"We went together in April 2009 for six months and ended up staying an extra month and a half for staffing needs," she said.
"I came home for 12 months after that, but decided even before I left the ship that I'd go back longer term.
"So in 2011 I left Australia and had planned to go for a year, but I ended up staying for five and a half years."
On board the ship no single day was the same.
From working as a surgery nurse, to ward nursing and paediatrics, Deb practised all kinds of nursing on board.
"We had many medical conditions that you find in patients all over the world but had been neglected in patients we saw, so things like large and unattended tumour removals," she said.
"Many patients came in ashamed of how they looked in the mirror, they didn't meet your eyes when talking to them, they were quite withdrawn.
"A lot of them had been ostracised in their village and relied on family members to get food, so they could continue living. If they had a tumour on their face that could stop their ability to chew, so they were living on liquids.
"It's always really amazing to watch them come out of surgery, look in the mirror for the first time and see the tumour they had watched for years and years had gone."
Patients ranged from young children all the way through to people in their 70s. Parents would sleep under their children's bed in the ward, sometimes with a breastfeeding baby with them as well.
"Patients trust us enough to travel a long distance to get to the ship," Deb said.
"They're putting their lives in the hands of strangers who don't speak their language. They're trusting us, listening to our instructions on what to do after surgery, they're so grateful for everything they've been given and really loving towards us too."
Deb returned to the ship for a third tour of duty for six months in 2018.
Overall she has helped people in seven countries: Benin, Sierra Leone, Togo, the Congo, Madagascar and Cameroon.
Deb currently works as a nurse at Toowoomba Hospital, in paediatrics and sometimes special care nursing.
She said the connection between nurses and patients in Australia and on the ship was quite different.
"Often here patients don't really want the nurse to spend time with them, they can be on a device, playing games, watching movies, that's quite different," she said.
"On the ship, if we weren't doing nursing care, we'd be playing card games like Uno, colouring in, doing craft, there was lots of patient interaction."
On Sunday, a documentary about Mercy Ships, which heavily features Deb, is set to air on 7TWO.
The documentary was filmed between 2012 and 2013.
"The most fun part (about being in the documentary) is saying look at this cool place I lived in, that's my second home," Deb said.
"I feel really proud to be a part of it. It makes me miss being there."
And it's a place she one day hopes to return to.
"I will be back at some stage I'm sure, but with COVID-19 they're at a standstill," she said.
She has given years of her life to Mercy Ships, but for Deb, she wouldn't change any of it.
"I gave a lot of years of my life to that place, a lot of time and money to serve those people," she said.
"But they've given me back so much more than I could have ever given them.
"I'm definitely a richer person for it."
The Surgery Ship airs on 7TWO at 12pm on Sunday, July 12 and 2.30pm on Wednesday, July 15.