Jenn Rodemeyer stood among her students, sharing simple lessons about good hygiene. When it came time to share tips for tooth brushing, she picked up a coconut husk to demonstrate. It was just another day in the open-air office for Rodemeyer, who spent six months as a volunteer with YWAM Medical Ships, much of it caring for patients in Papua New Guinea. Her family — including her husband, Abe, and four children, then ages 13, 12, 9 and 7 — served alongside her on the medical mission.
"My husband and I had always talked about going overseas and doing a mission," Rodemeyer, a child life specialist at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, says. A few years ago, he suggested the time was right. Rodemeyer's initial response? "I thought, 'Are you kidding?' We have four kids. We'd just gotten a dog," she recalls. But soon, she was researching organizations that would allow the whole family (minus the dog) to volunteer. And in July 2017 the Rodemeyers flew to Australia, where they received training and spent time volunteering in indigenous communities before boarding the medical ship that would serve as their home base for three months.
"Papua New Guinea is villages among villages, and the only way to reach them is by boat," she says. "Each day the ship would anchor and send three Zodiac boats to three different villages. People would walk for days to get to a village when they knew a team was coming." Each inflatable boat carried doctors, nurses, a midwife, a dental team and an ophthalmology team. Rodemeyer and her family assisted the teams by preparing patients for their appointments, providing health prevention and hygiene lessons, and — their specialty — playing.
"Play is a universal language," Rodemeyer tells us. That proved especially valuable in a country with more than 800 different dialects. "We brought a Frisbee and soccer ball to each village," Rodemeyer says. "The kids would all play together, which helped build trust."
Each day, volunteers cared for up to 600 patients, diagnosing and treating a variety of conditions, including some not commonly seen in the United States. "We saw a lot of tuberculosis and malaria," Rodemeyer says. The teams also distributed thousands of donated eyeglasses, providing some of Rodemeyer's favorite memories. "To see people put the glasses on for the first time was incredible," she tells us. "Their eyes would get big." People in need of advanced dental care would sometimes be taken back to the ship for treatment. (The ship is also equipped to provide cataract surgery, though there was no eye surgeon on board during the time the Rodemeyers volunteered.)
Rodemeyer tells us the experience was full of lessons — those her family shared, as well as the ones they received. "It was an awesome privilege to be surrounded by people who are so joyful and so generous in spite of having very little themselves," she says of the Papua New Guineans she met. "Here we're blessed with so many things. It's a privilege to have stores, cars, clean water to drink. Prior to going, I don't think we fully realized that. We try hard to be so thankful for those things."
The experience has also given Rodemeyer a new view on her work. "You don't need to go half way around the world to use your gifts and talents to serve," she says. "Now we try to look for ways to have our mission be here. The work we do at Mayo, every day — we've been called to mission right here."
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