Fieldset
"This story has affected me to my core": Life on board the Ocean Viking

The refugee crisis in Southern Europe has made headlines around the world, but what's it like working on MSF’s search and rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean? Experienced MSF nurse Tim talks about life on board the Ocean Viking. 

MSF nurse Tim Harrison at work on board Ocean Viking

I have had the honour, privilege and opportunity to be on board MSF search and rescue ships for the past two and a half years.  

As a nurse, to be a part of this project means a great deal to me. 

Restoring human dignity and providing medical care to people who may not have had a chance to see a medic in months, maybe years. 

It is quite rewarding. At a cost.  

Every patient has a story 

Amazingly to me, more than 30,000 people have been rescued by MSF, of which 8,400 were during my time at sea. 

MSF nurse Tim Harrison responds to an inflatable boat in distress with 102 people on board.

MSF nurse Tim Harrison responds to an inflatable boat in distress with 102 people on board.
MSF nurse Tim Harrison responds to an inflatable boat in distress with 102 people on board.

So many stories and yes, many very similar horrific tales of the worst human abuses imaginable.  

We use private consultations as an opportunity to speak to people about anything else they may want to share.  

During one medical consultation, together with the medical doctor, we treated a young man, easily providing the necessary treatment for his physical complaint.  

I certainly don’t think I’ve heard it all, far from it.

But, this time I just wasn’t prepared to hear this story. It has affected me to my core. 

The details I won’t speak of here as it is private and confidential.  

As a nurse, to be a part of this project means a great deal to me

I can say a few things. His journey from home (Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa) to the ship was simply the worst. 

What he went through, what he saw, how he survived. No one should have to endure the suffering he described. 

And yet he did.

Making a connection 

He told it to us without hesitation. Strong gestures, a steady, factual voice. Little eye contact. 

We both worried after. Opening these memories and considering how short a time we have with people, we worry about the after-effects. 

Is it helpful to encourage someone to recall and tell their story? Mostly, but not always.  

"We did our best” 

In the words of Leonard Cohen, “we did our best, it wasn’t much”… it doesn’t feel like much. 

We gave him an empathic ear, a connection to us, both quietly thanking him for sharing. Still, we worried. 

Since then I’ve seen him many times on board the ship – he blends in with the hundred or so others – and there has been no special acknowledgment of our conversation. 

He sought out the Humanitarian Affairs Officer we have on board to tell his story again. This worried me again but at the same time assured me he was realising it’s OK to speak to us.

Trust.  

A new beginning 

Isn’t this a part of our purpose? Restoring human dignity. Providing a brief safe haven. 

MSF nurse Tim Harrison shakes hands with a survivor as they disembark Ocean Viking in Taranto, Italy

MSF nurse Tim Harrison shakes hands with a survivor as they disembark Ocean Viking in Taranto, Italy
MSF nurse Tim Harrison shakes hands with a survivor as they disembark Ocean Viking in Taranto, Italy

His journey is a long way from being over. The days aboard have been safe for him, but after disembarkation in Pozzallo in Sicily, Italy, he enters the world.  

We will connect him to others who, hopefully, will care for him. 

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