Memorial Physical Therapist Volunteers in Sierra Leone, West Africa, on Medical Humanitarian Trip

volunteer, give back, MercyShips

Chrissy Willoughby searched for an organization that would combine her physical therapy skills with mission work for nearly 30 years before a television commercial about Mercy Ships caught her attention in early 2022.

That commercial led to a life-changing experience last fall for the Lincoln Memorial Hospital (LMH) physical therapist. Mercy Ships was founded in 1978 to provide hope and healing to those in need using repurposed and retrofitted ships. These hospital ships with volunteer medical professionals travel to underserved areas and provide life-changing surgeries to those who cannot access medical care.

Chrissy applied to Mercy Ships in spring of 2022. More than a year later, in August 2023, she flew to Sierra Leone from Chicago to volunteer in field service. Due to low volunteer numbers after COVID-19 in 2020, room and board fees were waived. Chrissy only had to pay for her airline ticket to Sierra Leone.

Her nearly three months of service coincided with the plastic surgeon rotation on her ship. Other rotations include dental work, maxillofacial surgery, eye surgery, orthopedic surgery, gynecological surgery and general surgery.

Nearly 650 people served on the ship in medical, technical and general roles. Her time there led to a greater appreciation for the accessibility of quality healthcare in the United States and especially in central Illinois.

volunteer, Mercy Ships

“We worked on a lot of burn reconstruction because they don’t have good burn care in the area,” Chrissy said. “Many patients came in with burn tissue scars, and we did skin grafting and splinting to help make arms or legs mobile again. There were lots of wounds and areas to care for. And then of course, we would work to return them to functionality.”

One of her most memorable patients was a girl who suffered from a mid-face tumor. As the tumor grew larger, and with no maxillofacial surgeon available for removal, the 14-year-old girl was at risk for complications like an impacted airway, limited ability to feed herself or even swallow. The tumor also affected her eye socket and vision.

Chrissy remembers the day the dressings came off the girl after successful maxillofacial surgery on the ship. The patient’s mother was jumping for joy and hugged Chrissy and others when her daughter saw herself in the mirror for the first time.

“She ran to me and grabbed me; she was so excited!” Chrissy recalled. “This girl at 14 – her mom knew what would happen to her daughter if nothing was done. They just don’t have the social resources we have.”

Today, Chrissy is back on the job as a per diem employee at Lincoln Memorial Hospital caring for physical therapy patients. She was able to take an unpaid leave of absence without worrying about losing her job.

“Overall, it was a tremendous experience,” she said. “It took me many years to get my life together to be able to do this. But it is still important to do these types of service opportunities here at home as well. It isn’t better or worse, just a different setting.”