Africa Mercy

Onboard with Africa Mercy

Thursday, March 24, 2016
Nursing lecturer returns to Mercy Ships

After 10 years in a classroom, an Avondale lecturer is taking her nursing skills back to sea to complete her PhD.

Formerly the nursing supervisor on the hospital ship Anastasis, Sonja Dawson will return to serve with Mercy Ships for the first time since leaving the charity in 2006. The six-month stint onboard the Africa Mercy will also double as research for Dawson’s doctoral thesis on nursing at sea.

Dawson had intended her first voyage in 1994 to be a brief adventure—she signed for only three months but served for 12 years. “I kept extending my trip!” laughs Dawson. “You get to see so many transformations, it’s incredible.”

The destination of that first voyage: Africa. Before joining Mercy Ships, Dawson had not visited the continent or any developing country. The pain and suffering she saw “came as a shock, but in the midst of that I knew I could do something that would make a difference.”

Dawson served as a ward nurse on the Anastasis but within days assumed responsibility for the after-hours nursing staff. Within six months, she headed the ward. Two years later, Dawson became nursing supervisor, responsible for overseeing up to 90 volunteers within the various medical service areas. When completing her Master of Nursing onboard became too difficult, Dawson took a 12-month break. After graduating, she returned to establish mentoring programs for local nurses.

Recognition of this service to African communities came at a Celebration of African Australian Awards ceremony at the Parliament of New South Wales in 2014. “Hundreds of others have also served,” said Dawson at the time, “so I accepted the award on behalf of all the unrecognised volunteers.” Mercy Ships offers its services for free primarily because crew onboard its fleet of ships consist entirely of volunteers who pay their own board and travel expenses. Managing Director of Mercy Ships Australia Alan Burrell said Sonja led by example. “What I admire the most is her ability to walk in her patients’ shoes.”

Mercy Ships differs from other aid and development organisations because its services cannot be classified fully as either emergency relief or development but as a bridge between the two. “It doesn’t really fit into any category,” says Dawson. “That’s why I’ve chosen to write my thesis on it.” Burrell says the thesis, Nursing at Sea: An Ethnographic Study of Nursing Onboard Mercy Ships, “will greatly benefit Mercy Ships and the people we serve.”

Mercy Missionary

Sonja Dawson received an award for service to African communities through the work of Mercy Ships.



Sara Bolst

Sara edited alumni magazine Reflections and served as Assistant Public Relations Officer during her tenure at Avondale College of Higher Education.