Published: March 1, 2017 By

abigailIn the West African port of Cotonou, Benin, Abigail Watrous (PhD CivEngr’12) wakes up in a bunk bed, rocking ever so slightly to the movement of the unusual ship she calls home.

“When I first started university, I had this vague idea of becoming an engineer and helping people,” she said last fall from aboard the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest private hospital ship. “The question that kept bugging me was, ‘How do people develop their own skills and grow out of poverty?’”

Watrous had been thinking about this since her undergraduate days at Rice University, when she participated in a group trip to Mali led by CU Boulder engineering professor Bernard Amadei, co-founder of the Engineers Without Borders-International network. In the ensuing years Watrous earned a PhD from CU, did a Fulbright in China and worked on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I learned so much about policy,” she said, “but was dying for boots on the ground.”

Last spring Watrous applied to Mercy Ships, an international faith-based organization focused on healthcare in Africa. Accepted for a 10-month tour of duty, the Washington, D.C., resident moved her belongings into storage, stockpiled malaria medication, scheduled vaccinations and packed two-weeks’ worth of clothes that would need to last a year.

As a member of the medical capacity building team — her first degree is in biomedical engineering — Watrous helps manage logistics for Mercy Ships’ continuing education classes in medicine. These short courses give local midwives, nurses, doctors and surgeons a chance to enhance their skills in topics such as pain management, anesthesia, primary trauma care, and surgery.

She spends much of her time in an office 30 steps from her cabin, managing courses. On the occasional day when she finds herself exasperated by Excel, she visits the hospital down the hall. Spending time with patients quickly provides fresh motivation for fiddling with spreadsheets.

Outside, container ships move in and out of the port; tents for patient admission, screening and rehab dot the wharf. Watrous gets around Cotonou by motorcycle taxi, but plans to get her driver’s license so she can help transport students and instructors for the courses she organizes.

Evenings might bring contra dancing, movies, card games or knitting and chatting with friends. Watrous volunteers at the ship’s Starbucks on Sunday mornings and has added cappuccinomaking to her skillset.

Unexpected joys include the sunsets and the fellowship of the other volunteers, an international gang of 400 in all from around the world — each paying to serve on the ship. (Watrous’ monthly crew fees are $630.)

Many aspects of the Mercy Ship experience remind Watrous of Americans’ relative good fortune.

“We tend to forget, ‘I’m actually a very, very rich person,’” she said, noting that she has an iPhone, academic degrees and a bank account. “I’m the minority in the world, walking down the street with a little cash in my pocket. I’m healthy and educated. I feel like those are all blessings.”