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Women at Work: Shannon Rutledge

Laura Peppas

After finishing college, Shannon Rutledge was struggling to decide what she wanted to do for a living. That all changed when she travelled overseas for her gap year.

“While I was travelling, I saw the injustices of the world,” Shannon says.

“Coming from a first world country we often forget those that are less fortunate than ourselves. The basics of human survival – food, shelter and love – do not exist in these countries.

“At that moment I decided to return home and study nursing in the aim of one day helping those that are less fortunate in developing nations. I have not looked back since.”

The 27 year old, who is due to finish her postgraduate diploma in emergency and trauma nursing this year with the University of Tasmania, currently works as an intensive care nurse at the Canberra Hospital.

Her life changed, however, when she undertook four months of volunteer service with medical charity Mercy Ships earlier this year, working as a specialised intensive care nurse on board the hospital ship Africa Mercy in the Republic of Madagascar.

Shannon Rutledge assisting a patient on board. Photo: Justine Forrest.

Shannon Rutledge assisting a patient on board. Photo: Justine Forrest.

The charity, which uses hospital ships and ground based teams to deliver free surgeries and health care to the poorest people in the developing world, is credited for transforming the lives of more than 2.42 million people in the least developed countries for more than 35 years. Australian surgeons, nurses and other staff volunteer their services and pay for their own expenses so the charity can treat more people.

During its eight-month stay in Madagascar, Africa Mercy aimed to provide approximately 1,700 surgeries for adult and child patients on board, to treat approximately 8,000 at a land-based dental and eye clinics renovated for those purposes, and provide holistic health care education to Malagasy health care professionals and community leaders.

Shannon says each day on board the ship was led with emotional support and many physical obligations.

“Daily dressing changes, medications, observations, assessments, drawing bloods and supplying blood to the blood bank were some of my duties,” she says.

“Even though our patients were generally healthy and healing as expected, we had to always be prepared, ready and looking for the signs of deterioration. I cared for three patients that where intubated, sedated and on life support during my time on board.”

The most challenging part of Shannon’s role was the “personal connection” with patients.

“It meant when bad news came, I took it personally,” she says.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan - Patients with nurses on Deck 7

Shannon with her patients. Photo: Katie Keegan.

“We had a 26 year old beautiful patient with a small tumor on his mandible. He was so kind hearted and loving with a huge smile that would brighten anyone’s day. As I prepared him for surgery we giggled, fumbled over language barriers and improvised with sign language.

“We prayed for him as he left our unit, as we do for all our patients, and I waited for his return all day, but he didn’t return. When they opened him up they found a malignant tumor. So they closed him up, and sent him to our palliative care team. Tears are streaming down my face…as he will die. In this country and throughout the world chemotherapy and radiation does not exist. If he were born or lived in our country he would receive these treatments and would live a long life full of joy and love.”

Shannon says her experience with Mercy Ships has changed her perspective on life.

“I can’t express what it feels like to care for a patient on their journey from the preoperative period through the day of surgery and throughout the trials of post-surgery and recovery (days, weeks and sometimes months) of healing,” she says.

“To be with them from start to finish, celebrating the small victories and praying through the small defects, then shedding those happy tears when they are finally carried down the hallway and off the ship, away from a place where you have spent hours upon hours loving them – it pulls my heart strings every time yet gives me so much joy.”

For more information on Mercy Ships, visit here:

Feature image by Katie Keegan. 


Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author