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Tamara’s mission: to answer God’s call on a floating hospital

Tamara Shepherd and other volunteers support a patient doing exercises aboard the Global Mercy. Picture supplied.

Jenan Taylor

6 June 2023

Physiotherapist Tamara Shepherd has been helping people heal for 43 years. But it might be what she does in her spare time that changes people’s lives.

Outside work the St Hilary’s parishioner has been known to be found helping out in the church’s op shop, supporting natural disaster response efforts in regional Victoria, or participating in medical teams from India to Tanzania.

Ms Shepherd has clocked up so much volunteering experience, she was awarded an Order of Australia medal on Australia Day for her community service.

She said after struggling through COVID restrictions, she realised that being around people and doing things for them motivated her.

But her faith was her main driver. “I’m just doing what God calls us to do, which is to use our skills and abilities to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves,” Ms Shepherd said.

Physiotherapist Tamara Shepherd has volunteered on Mercy Ships. Picture: Elspeth Kernebone

That mission has taken her to volunteer with Mercy Ships, a faith-based healthcare organisation that delivers medical aid for people most in need in developing countries from aboard a fleet of floating civilian hospitals.

What most attracted Ms Shepherd to Mercy Ships was that there were so many individuals from different places and cultures volunteering to do something for other people, she said.

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Ms Shepherd’s first stint with the organisation’s Africa Mercy vessel in 2019 took her to Guinea.

There she drew on for the first time in more than 30 years, skills she learned while working in the burns unit of the Alfred Hospital in the 1980s, to manage burns contractures in patients.

Her second three-month assignment placed Ms Shepherd just off Senegal and The Gambia recently, on board the organisation’s custom-built Global Mercy hospital ship, the largest in the world.

Ms Shepherd said the work was particularly focused on orthopaedic surgery for children with conditions like rickets, knock knees or wind-swept legs, that are caused by dietary deficiencies and other misfortune.

In one memorable case, Khadiatou, a child who had been unable to walk for two years because of severe burns, and was withdrawn, came to be able to exercise and play again two weeks after surgery, she said.

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Since returning to Australia, Ms Shepherd has been receiving reports of Khadiatou’s progress.

“She was laughing and talking, which she had not done since her burns, and even told herself ‘good job’, after each exercise, which was a phrase I had initially used with her,” she said. “It’s a real example of the emotional and physical healing that’s being done on the ships in God’s name.”

Despite the serious nature of the work, the mood aboard the Mercy ships was always welcoming and compassionate for patients, and staff alike, irrespective of their beliefs.

“It’s a bit like going to church camp, basically with 600 mainly other Christian people from 40 different countries. They have worship services on board, there’s a chaplain. In many ways it’s an easy way to serve,” Ms Shepherd said.

But the experience has affirmed her belief that everyone has God-given talents to serve the community with.

“They don’t have to be profound; it could be sewing masks in your own house. If people have got time, they’ve always got some talent or wisdom to offer someone that could help them,” Ms Shepherd said.

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