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Bayport native volunteers with Mercy Ships in West Africa

Kathleen Cinelli, 27, of Bayport, cares for a

Kathleen Cinelli, 27, of Bayport, cares for a child on the hospital ship Africa Mercy, which is docked in Benin, West Africa. Cinelli is volunteering as a nurse through the organization Mercy Ships. Credit: Mercy Ships / Catrice Wulf

Kathleen Cinelli’s commitment to helping the less fortunate has taken her far from her native Bayport to Benin, a small country in West Africa.

For the past two months, Cinelli, 27, has volunteered at sea with Mercy Ships, a fleet of hospital ships that brings medical care to people in developing nations.

She’s currently working as a nurse on the maxillofacial ward of the Africa Mercy, the largest nongovernmental hospital ship in the world, which is now docked off Cotonou, Benin, a spokeswoman for the organization said.

Cinelli is a travel nurse who has been contracted to work in pediatric critical care units in several hospitals across California, as well as in Austin, Texas, and at the Montefiore Medical Center Children’s Hospital in the Bronx. After learning about Mercy Ships from a friend, Cinelli said she wanted to volunteer so she could bring “meaningful change” to people in need.

“I’ve always wanted to help people,” she said in a phone interview. “This was a great opportunity to be able to transform the lives of people who have little or no access to quality health care or have nowhere else to turn to.”

After ending a 10-month stint at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, Cinelli booked a flight back to New York and spent some time with her family in Bayport before heading to Benin in September.

“At first my family thought I was crazy, to go to West Africa and live on a ship,” she said. “But once I explained to them what I would be doing, they were very supportive.”

Cinelli’s father, Ed Cinelli, said he couldn’t be more proud of Kathleen, who paid her own way to Benin and is also paying for her room and board on the ship.

“It was kind of a shock when we first learned about it,” he said. “But what a thing she’s doing. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Cinelli is one of about 1,000 volunteer crew members from up to 40 countries, who serve on the Africa Mercy ship annually, a spokeswoman said.

“It’s been really great to work with Kathleen. She’s a very good nurse who has been willing to chip in and help out other wards,” said Esther Avera, Cinelli’s supervisor, in a phone interview.

Cinelli mostly treats patients with cleft lips or palates, but she also helps people with extremely large and sometimes life-threatening facial tumors.

“I had never seen anything like these tumors before,” Cinelli said. “Back home, facial tumors are usually removed once they become the size of a small blemish. But out here, where there’s very limited access to medical care, these tumors just grow and grow and grow.”

She remembers working with one patient, Julian, who she said came to the Mercy Ship with a tumor the size of a volleyball growing out of the bottom of his jaw. He wore a cloth over his face to hide the tumor and was underweight because the deformity made it difficult for him to eat. They were able to successfully remove Julian’s tumor and he made a good recovery, Cinelli said.

“I remember when he first saw himself after the operation,” she said. “The shock in his eyes and the way they welled up with happiness. It gave me chills.”

Cinelli will volunteer on the vessel until Nov. 5. After that she’ll return stateside to continue working as a travel nurse, but will always remember her time in West Africa, she said.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned in these past couple months is that it doesn’t take a lot to make a real change in someone’s life.”


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