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Saving and changing lives on the high seas

Tara McHardy

Tara McHardy, 29, heard about Mercy Ships in 2001. She was enthralled with the notion of sailing to the poorest parts of the world to volunteer on board a floating hospital as an operating-room nurse. One major hurdle stood in her way, though: She wasn't a nurse.

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So, she started her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Calgary. After graduation, she began working at Alberta Children's Hospital; in May, 2011, she used her vacation time to volunteer for three weeks in Sierra Leone. She returned home and, despite having had a six-year career at the children's hospital, quit her job in January, 2012, to join Mercy Ships for a six-month mission in Togo. She has since returned to Calgary in search of work, and is determined to do another mission in the future.

First step

In addition to getting my nursing credentials, I contacted the Mercy Ships office in Texas and had to provide medical forms, job qualifications, references and personal information.

Most memorable moment

Assisting on an all-day surgery for a 12-year-old boy who had a massive neurofibroma tumour that had grown so large that it distorted his face, with sagging skin covering one eye and drooping below his jawline. The surgery was a success.


I was involved with hundreds of surgeries, working 16 weeks, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. or until surgery was completed. On the ship, we would do 15 to 30 cataract surgeries each day in the eye rooms, and anywhere between one to four patients per theatre, with two to four theatres running each day.

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The youngest patient was three months old, with patients ranging up to their 80s or 90s. The ailments ranged from cataracts, hernias, goiters, fistulas; burns; tumours; cleft lips and palates. Since 1978, Mercy Ships has had more than 2.35 million direct beneficiaries.


Literally saving a life; one patient came to the ship with a seven-kilogram tumour on her back. Within half an hour, the plastic surgeons were able to remove it and she literally had a burden lifted off her back.


All the volunteers on the ship are required to pay their own flights and a crew fee which covers costs like housing and food. The cost for the flight is usually around $2,000, and the monthly crew fee for me was $680 (U.S.). I fund-raised by asking friends, family and co-workers to support me, helping with the costs.

Fun factor

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I live my normal urban lifestyle, going out with friends and playing sports. I love good food and music, enjoying the outdoors as much as possible and travelling whenever time allows.

What keeps you awake at night?

I hate the fact that we get so self-absorbed in the First World. We get obsessed with the way we look or what we have, yet people in Africa and other parts of the world are dealing with issues and problems that we cannot even imagine.


Gary Parker. He is a maxillofacial surgeon on the ship who has dedicated the past 26 years to working on Mercy Ships.


I will continue to do more mission trips, starting with a trip to Peru in October.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Farah Mohamed is president and chief executive officer of the G(irls)20 Summit. Send suggestions for Action Figure to

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