Monday, September 28, 2015

Behind the Scenes

The following story highlights Emma Davis, one of the students in the Basic Training course I recently instructed here at the International Operations Center.  Though we no longer serve on the ship in Africa, we continue to work behind the scenes to bring hope and healing to the poor through excellence in training.

On a mission: Cranberry grad to sail to Africa 

Cranberry High School graduate Emma Davis holds a child during a mission trip to a small village called Mapasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Davis will travel on the ship the Africa Mercy in August to Tamatave, Madagascar.

As a child growing up in the Cranberry area, Emma Davis says she didn't know anything about nursing and would have been squeamish about anything a nurse would do. 

But that was then. And this is now. 

Now, the 27-year-old Cranberry High School and Edinboro University graduate is training in Tyler, Texas, preparing to travel half-way around the world in August, as an adult intensive care unit nurse. 

Davis will embark aboard the Africa Mercy, part of the fleet of the global charity Mercy Ships. She will be part of a team of medical professionals granting free health care to the people of Tamatave, Madagascar, the huge island nation off the east coast of Africa. 

Davis' journey from high school to become a third-world ICU medical missionary, has been anything than what she expected. 

"I loved health class in high school," Davis said. "Then God spoke to me and I thought I was going to have an easy route, but I was wrong." 

God's way of preparing Davis as a medical missionary after graduating college in 2010, landed her at UPMC Hamot in Erie, equipped with the only trauma center in the tri-state area offering trauma-neuro-surgical care in an ICU. 

"It was totally God to put me in a trauma unit," said Davis. "It was the best experience I could get, combining both specialized and general care at the same time. With the high acuity of patients right off the bat, it made me look at the big picture so much more than if I'd been a floor nurse." 

After moving to Erie for her job at Hamot, Davis was invited to a Christian group called Erie Young Adults, and began attending Erie First Assembly of God Church, both of which had a deep impact on her life. 

"I had found community and it wasn't in a bar," Davis said. "They taught me how to take the Christianity I had learned as a child and make it my own personal faith." 

Having grown up in the church, Davis knew all about Christianity as a religion, but not as a personal relationship with Jesus. 

Her new church encouraged mentorships for young adults and Davis was cautiously interested, and agreed to be mentored.

"I have trust issues, so I was leery," said Davis. "But I felt it was a God thing and went in being totally honest and open. I took what she said and applied it to the Word of God to make sure it lined up, and it did." 

As Davis continued to grow in her faith, she began to feel she was supposed to do something more with the talents and training she had as an ICU trauma nurse. She began to think about medical missions. 

Davis had been on mission trips in high school. She traveled into Appalachia several times with a friend from Heckathorn United Methodist Church in Seneca. Those were service-based mission projects helping the impoverished in a variety of ways. 

Years later, in 2012, and with a renewed faith, Davis saw that a friend on Facebook was going on a medical and nutritional mission trip to Africa. She felt this was her opportunity to do something more with what God had given her. 

"I had always wanted to go to Africa," Davis said. "The country was calling me, pulling at my heart." 

She joined her friend on a mission trip to a small village called Mapasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa. 

Davis volunteered at a medical and nutritional center, mainly helping with a feeding program helping children from infancy through teenage years. The project wasn't as medically-based as she originally thought, but she was able to "be around some of the surgeries," and the experience had a powerful impact on her life and desire to serve. 

"Everywhere you looked there was poverty," said Davis. "It's so different from what you see on television - to be standing in the middle of a garbage pile where these people actually live. And the medical care in third world countries is shocking." 

"My role in Mapasa was not as a nurse," Davis said. "But it was such a culture shock, I'm not even sure I could have been (a nurse on that mission). God opened my eyes to what was going on in the world, and after that experience I didn't know what I'd be doing next." 

Davis may not have known what she would do next, but she said God knew. 

About two years ago Davis saw a segment on "60 Minutes" on Mercy Ships, a Christian-based medical ministry that operates a fleet of hospital ships providing free health care to poor people in nations all over the world.

"I started bawling," said Davis. "It was perfect. I thought maybe I will do that someday." 

Davis said it wasn't an easy process. It was about a year later when she joined with her church in a time of fasting, and things began to happen. 

"I was really hungry and just wanted a sandwich," Davis said. "But instead I went to study the Word, and Mercy Ships just popped into my head." 

Davis prayed and consulted her mentor. She filled out an application and it took months of hard waiting, struggling and trusting God. But in April, she finally received the call that she would be an adult ICU nurse for a year of field service on the Mercy Ship "Africa Mercy," heading to Madagascar in August. 

She's now in her five-week basic training to orient her to life on a medical ship and long-term service in a third-world country. 

"I'm learning all the on-board training stuff for staff committed to at least a year or more," said Davis. "I'm learning all about Mercy Ships' core values, about living in a community and how much we need to rely on God. We're spending a lot of time in prayer and I'm also learning about west African culture." 

Mercy Ships has an impressive track record of international outreach ministry. 

Since 1978, the nonprofit organization has served more than 2.5 million people. Free medical services and materials have been provided in developing nations valued at over $1.2 billion. 

Annually, Mercy Ships has over 1,600 volunteers who help in locations around the world, 900 of which serve in Africa. 

The Africa Mercy alone has had more than 3,400 crew members from 72 countries serve onboard since its launch in 2007. It has five operating theaters, 82 patient beds and berths for an average crew of 450. 

When Davis arrives in Madagascar in August, she can't be certain what her daily routine will be, since as an ICU trauma nurse, nothing can be truly called routine. 

Types of cases she will likely deal with are maxillofacial in nature. Often, Mercy Ships provide medical care for patients needing tumors removed, plastic surgery for severe burns, and treatment for mouth deformities such as cleft lips or palates.

"It's hard to have expectations," Davis said. "I'm just excited to see how God will reveal himself to me, to our patients and to all the people I'll be working with. But I do expect to see physical, emotional and spiritual healings." 

Davis has committed to serve on the "Africa Mercy" for a full year. She could extend that to two years or even longer, depending on what God speaks to her over the next 12 months. 

"I'm most excited that the ship is faith-based, living the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus," said Davis. "The culture may be different, but we can give them hope for a future showing them Jesus, especially those with those incredibly large tumors. They've been so ostracized from society. I can't wait to get over there and just love on them." 

Credit: E. CURTIS HANNA Staff writer | Posted: Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What if...

Rudyard Kipling penned a poignant and piercing poem titled “If” that describes the outworking of virtues that a man will display when he is truly “a man”.  It is a moving piece and stirs one, hopefully, to strive toward greater resilience and strength.  There is something about it that bothers me, though.  It is all about self-effort.  Not only that; there is also the implication also that one is not a “man” until he has achieved the pinnacle of unwavering fortitude.  Kipling does not seem to make allowance for brokenness or reliance on others – both representative of humility – as manly attributes. 

Recently, as most reading this are aware, we relocated to the United States to volunteer with Mercy Ships at the headquarters in East Texas after eight years on the Africa Mercy.  Many aspects of this change in season have been wonderful.  And yet far too often I find myself grumbling, getting frustrated, and bemoaning this, that, or the other thing. 

“Why can’t this stupid software program work like I want it to?”

“Why does that person __________?”

“Why does my stupid ankle still hurt two years after my injury?”

“I’m so tired of relying on other people to financially support us.  God, why won’t you let me go get a ‘real’ job?”

“Why can’t you kids remember to chew with your mouths closed or not track dirt all over the floor?”

The list could go on but you get the idea.  I am embarrassed to share these frustrations, pride issues, fears, and examples of my poor parenting.  I would much prefer that you all think I am a spiritual giant reminiscent of the ‘man’ in Kipling’s “If”.  As our family walks this new path, though, I keep seeing or hearing things that lead me to believe that God is cultivating patience, grace, humility, and dependence on Him in these circumstances.  I think that one of the outward displays of walking the right direction with God through this is little moments of gratitude.  For me, it isn’t If but What If.

What if
…I thank God for the efficiency of technology and having grown up in a country where I learned how to use it?

…I see Jesus in the person that I am interacting with and considered how I could be a blessing in their life?

…every time my ankle hurts I remember to pray for those enduring pain and hardship, and choose to be grateful that even though it hurts after lunchtime basketball on Monday it is strong enough to play again in time for lunchtime basketball on Friday?

…I choose to see the blessing in learning to be reliant on others, trust that God will meet our financial needs, and remember that serving with Mercy Ships is very much a ‘real’ job?

…be grateful that my children have food to eat, a yard to play in, and a safe home that they can track dirt through – AND remember what an incredibly blessed man I am to have such amazing kids?

I think that, perhaps, being a man (or woman or child) is much more about embracing these seasons of brokenness for what we can learn from them, the relationships that grow out of them, and the grace that we experience in them than it is about becoming a self-reliant, unshakable rock.  Strength, fortitude, and determinism are good things, Mr. Kipling.  But they aren’t the only good things.  

Monday, June 22, 2015


At the end of May we all arrived in the US after about 48 hours of door to door travel; Dara, Grace, and Xavier to Seattle and Elijah, Malachi, and I to East Texas.  Dara and company spent a couple of weeks visiting family in the Northwest while my gang got the house set up in lovely Van, TX.  Though it's only about 1,400 square feet it feels like a mansion after a 500 sq. ft. cabin.  I also spent a week at the International Operations Center for Mercy Ships doing handover for the role that I will fill in Maritime Training beginning the 6th of July.  The first two days will be straight into teaching fire fighting to the current Gateway class. 

This past Sunday morning we were reunited as a family and have spent some time settling and continuing to work around the house and yard.  Transition has been relatively smooth so far.  Certainly there is much adjusting and it is clear that there is much about American culture that our kids aren't familiar with, which is sometimes a blessing.  There are myriad details and the costs of transition are brutal, even with the bonus of having had some furniture and things in storage and some items donated by friends and neighbors.  If you feel called to help out with that you can go here: Donate to the Koontz Family.  We continue to volunteer with Mercy Ships and rely on the support of others to fulfill the mission God has called us to. 

So, we're here.  We're trying to sort out how to reintegrate into things like commutes, grocery shopping, home repairs (our hot water tank ruptured a little over a week ago), etc.  We have been continually blessed along the way and are looking forward to this season.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Dear Family and Friends,

It has been a season of changes for the Koontz family and the trend continues.  This May we will fly out of Madagascar and away from the Africa Mercy to relocate to East Texas.  I (Peter) will be remaining with Mercy Ships, volunteering at the International Operations Center (IOC) in Maritime Training.  Dara will home-school Xavier, and the older three will enter the public school system in Van, the small city where we will live.

For those that are already financially supporting us we prayerfully ask that you continue to do so.  In fact, we are asking those who have not supported us financially in the past to consider doing so, as living in the states will cost more than living in Africa. Monthly contributions are excellent as they help us to plan better financially.  One time donations to assist with the huge costs involved with relocation (airfare, stocking the pantry, buying a vehicle, etc.) are also very welcome.  Though our location will be different, we will continue to serve in the same organization and contribute to the same mission: bringing hope and healing to the poor through free specialized surgical intervention.  Training hits the sweet spot of my gifts and skills, and I am looking forward to helping ensure that the crew on Mercy Ships vessels is equipped to handle the challenges of shipboard life.

The back story:
We have been prayerful for some time about our future and next steps.  We had a family meeting and collectively felt that God was asking us to close this season of our lives on the Africa Mercy and relocate to the US.  We didn't have much more clarity than that.  In the ensuing weeks we continued to discuss and pray.  God revealed that our time on the Africa Mercy is coming to a close but that He would like us to continue to serve with Mercy Ships. For us this is a leap of faith to trust God in all we do.

As you can perhaps imagine or identify with, we are in a bitter-sweet place.  We are grateful to have clear direction from the Lord and there are many things we are excited about experiencing in the United States - some of us for the first time (Xavier has never lived there and Malachi was 4 when we came to Mercy Ships) - like pets, being closer to family, our own kitchen, and being able to drive a car without having to check the sign out book to see if one is available!  That said, it is also difficult to say goodbye to such a special home, so many wonderful people, and, of course, to Africa. 

Please join us in prayer and perhaps financially as we embark on this next step in the grand adventure that God has for us.

Please also don't hesitate to contact us with any comments, questions, prayers, encouragement, etc.

The Koontz Family

Sunday, February 22, 2015

School Retreat

The whole group getting ready to go.
 A couple of weeks ago the Junior High and High School students went on a weekend retreat.  This is an annual occurrence and is a mixture of teamwork, relationship building, worship, seeking God, and a whole lot of fun. The theme of the retreat was Freedom in Christ.

On the road
This year they went to Mahambo, a rural area about two hours north of where the ship is berthed.  The accommodations were sparse but relatively nice (that is to say that they actually had beds...there was no running water, air conditioning, and only about 1/2 an hour of electricity a day).

Here are some highlights from each of them:

Grace - "On one of the nights we had worship and a campfire on the beach.  The moon was almost full and it was a beautiful setting.  It was great to be outside, in God's creation, and off of the ship for a while."

Sitting down for dinner.
Elijah - "I really enjoyed the beach.  We got to go on paddleboards, swim, and play tackling games.  Also, there was an awesome coral reef with tons of tropical fish."

Malachi - "We got to play this really cool game where we got to try to tackle people and pick them up so that they weren't touching the ground at all.  Also, the noodles were really yummy."

Graces team: the 'Shady Dealers'

Everybody loves a campfire

Beach fun

Malachi spending some time alone with his Bible

Malachi's epic run

Monday, February 16, 2015

One of the Reasons

There are a lot of reasons that we serve with Mercy Ships.  The primary one is that God called us to.  Each day we come into contact with a lot of other reasons: our fellow crew; patients and potential patients; the Malagasy community...  Sometimes, though, there is a particular patient that, while no more important than
any other, signifies so strongly what Mercy Ships is all about.  Sambany is a man who has endured incredible hardship.  He came to us for free, live-changing surgery.  Dara was one of 17 crew members that donated blood to help Sambany through his 12 hour surgery.  Below is his story as written by the Canadian office of Mercy Ships (with some photos added):

Sambany’s Story


Meet Sambany. 19 of his 60 years have been consumed by a tumour that has slowly been growing from his neck. The tumour is now massive, it is a burden that represents 19 years of misery and disgrace.

He told us that because of the tumour, he had stopped praying. He didn’t believe that he would ever have relief.
“One year ago, I was waiting for the time, ‘When, God, are you going to take me?’ I was waiting to die. I could not do anything. Every day, I was just waiting to die.”
One day, near the end of 2014, a friend told him,
“There in Tamatave, there is a ship, Mercy Ships. You can go there and be fixed.”
He decided to take the chance and set out with his grandson, Flavy, for Tamatave.
For three days they walked and walked until they finally reached a town with a paved road. They rested there for some time and then took a four hour car ride to finally reach the port city.

Despite the odds, Sambany saw the hope, he made the journey, and he dreamed that something might actually change this time.

When he arrived at the Africa Mercy on the 21st January 2015, the screening team quickly rushed him inside for a CT scan.
It was one of the biggest tumours the screening team had ever seen.

Days of careful discussion followed as our medical team pored over his results and health condition – due to complications, it was uncertain whether Sambany would receive surgery.

After many days of deliberation, the medical team and Sambany reached a decision. Knowing the risks, they would go ahead with his surgery. Was Sambany nervous the day before his surgery? Not at all, he said
“My heart is very, very happy. I’m very happy. I’m just happy.
I know without surgery I will die. I know I might die in surgery, but I already feel dead inside from the way I’m treated. I choose to have surgery.”
Sambany was going to lose a lot of blood during his surgery and on this ship, the crew is the blood bank. A small army was called to donate blood to Sambany before, during and after his surgery.

MGB150204_SAMBANY_PAT16203_BLOOD_DONORS_KK0001_HISo far, the blood of 17 people runs through Sambany’s veins! 

Although the people directly involved in Sambany’s surgery within the operating room numbered eight, the true number of people involved was in the hundreds.
The hospital staff, all the crew, the local day crew, hundreds dedicated themselves to loving one man.
Together they fought a battle against this tumour – from the prayers that were sent up to God’s ears, to our eager blood bank, to the conversations of compassion that filled our midst, all thoughts were on Sambany during his surgery.

Dara's arm getting the big poke

It was a historic moment for the Africa Mercy.

After 12 hours of surgery (around twice as long as planned), the 7.46 kg (16.45 lbs) tumour he carried for nearly a third of his life was finally removed.

When he awoke after his surgery, he said, “When I have recovered, I want to repay you (Mercy Ships), because I am very happy, because I am saved. God gave to take out my big tumour. God helped me to become like this. God saved me.”
Dara filling her unit.

Many people came to visit him. He wanted to shake all their hands.

Sabany1When Sambany saw himself in the mirror for the first time, without his tumour, he said,
“I like it. I am happy.”
He will remain with the ship for many months of recovery, but today Sambany is a new man and he is happy.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Here, There, and Everywhere

We got to fly with MAF on this last trip.  I got to fly in the copilot seat!
In my position as Field Security Officer I have had ample opportunity to travel.  Many of you have likely followed some of that on Facebook.  I have posted quite a few scenic photos.  Madagascar is, indeed, a beautiful place.  What I have not been able to show you are photos of the thousands of people that have come for various screenings.  I do not feel comfortable whipping my camera out and taking pictures of those who have come seeking help, many of whom are ashamed of their conditions. 

What I can do is tell you that it has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.  I get to see nearly every patient that walks through the gates at each site.  One aspect of my role is to have command presence and ensure order.  On very few occasions have I had to even raise my voice, largely because the Malagasy people are very respectful.  In addition to keeping lines straight, the flow logical, things calm, and dealing with the infrequent dispute, I get to banter, offer a smile to those who are clearly suffering, and do my best to have Jesus shine through me.  It is such an incredible joy to see many walk away with a yellow card to visit the ship and call out in Malagasy: "I'll see you in Tamatave"!

On this last trip I also got to learn some new Malagasy phrases (not an easy language to learn) and horse around with a couple of little boys who were tired of waiting in line with their mom.  It was also the first time my Malagasy security translator/partner had been on an airplane.  He was giddy, and it was so awesome to see. 

It's not all 'ups', though.  One of the most difficult parts is telling people no.  Often it is the screening team to whom this unpleasant responsibility falls.  Sometimes, however, we have to close the lines because we have too many people and it becomes the role of security to turn people away at the gate.  It requires one to be polite but firm.  To be frank, a certain amount of callousness/emotional detachment is necessary.  While it is something that I can do - and do well - it is heartbreaking and draining.  Perhaps even more difficult to bear, however, is seeing the crestfallen look of those who waited in line with hearts full of hope only to learn that they have a condition that Mercy Ships cannot treat.  It is not due to a lack of clarity or communication on our part.  What we can and cannot treat is disseminated through various media channels prior to our arrival.  But when you hear that there is a hospital ship providing free surgeries and no one has been able to help you...

I continue to be grateful to be a part of what Mercy Ships is doing to bring hope and healing to the poor.  Our organization isn't perfect.  I don't always like it.  But what we do is incredible, and the lives changed over the years stand as a testimony to what a committed group of people can do through their efforts and the power of God.  Thanks for being a part of our journey.