Sonja Dawson Mercy Ships

Nursing at sea to become a PhD

Friday, November 24, 2017
Lecturer using postgraduate study to inspire others to serve

An Avondale nursing lecturer has returned from Africa to complete a PhD she began during a six-month volunteer stint onboard a floating hospital.

Sonja Dawson is studying the service of nurses who volunteer with global charity Mercy Ships. Published findings about this type of service are only anecdotal, so Dawson is expected to make a substantial contribution to our knowledge about it.

Mercy Ships brings hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. It provides free services primarily because the crew on each ship are volunteers who pay their own board and travel expenses. Those services include plastic reconstructive surgery, head and neck surgery and surgery for women who have been injured during child birth. “I respect and honour the work Mercy Ships does in bringing hope and healing, restoring dignity and sharing the love of Christ in most practical ways,” says Dawson.

Dawson is a Mercy Ships veteran, having served for almost 12 years. She returned to Australia in 2006 but was drawn back once again, this time to not only serve but research for her Doctor of Philosophy degree.

Sonja Dawson illustrates very well the service focus of Avondale’s staff and students.Professor Ray Roennfeldt, President, Avondale College of Higher Education
Using ethnographic methodology, Dawson conducted semi-structured interviews with 50 nurses on the Africa Mercy. She also filed field notes over a five-month period that began on the ship’s arrival in the west African country of Benin.

Her experience “illustrates very well the service focus of Avondale’s staff and students,” says Avondale College of Higher Education President Professor Ray Roennfeldt, a former registered nurse.

Dawson had intended her first voyage with Mercy Ships in 1994 to be a brief adventure—she signed for only three months but served for 12 years. 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.

Her work as a lecturer in the Discipline of Nursing at Avondale helped smooth the transition from ship to shore in a developed country. “We have a privileged position as nurses in Australia, and it is my aim to increase awareness of the needs of our colleagues from low-to-middle income countries and inspire others to serve.”

Managing Director of Mercy Ships Australia Alan Burrell says Dawson “has a deep passion for the work of Mercy Ships. . . . We know [this research] will help prepare those who wish to volunteer in the future by giving them insight into nursing with Mercy Ships, in all its contexts.”

Mercy Ships has operated a fleet of hospital ships in developing countries since 1978. It 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.”

Dawson is due to complete her PhD in 2019.



Eilish Ryan

Eilish Ryan is a Bachelor of Arts student majoring in visual communication (graphic design) at Avondale College of Higher Education.