CLACKAMAS, OR (December 1, 2017) — Sharon Tissell works 30 hours a week as a trauma nurse—work that helps subsidize her volunteer work around the world with organizations that treat the most vulnerable people following disasters.
She was among the first outside medical personnel to work in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake and in the Kutupalong refugee camp, where more than 550,000 Rohingya people have fled to escape genocide in recent months. (See Refugee Camp to read accompanying story about work at Kutupalong)
The Covenanter also has worked in the Philippines following Hurricane Haiyan, at a camp for internally displaced people in Uganda who were fleeing Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Libya treating civilians days before Colonel Gaddafi was killed, and in a tent city in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley while caring for Syrian refugees.
“This has been a passion of mine for a long time,” Tissell says. “That God gives me the opportunity is such a gift.”
Most of her trips have been with Medical Teams International (MTI), a frequent Covenant World Relief partner. She has volunteered with other organizations as well.
Her interest in international service was sparked at a young age while thumbing through her parents’ National Geographic magazines and seeing the living conditions that were a world apart from her home in Pennock, Minnesota.
After graduating from nursing school, she initially applied to cover a nurse’s furlough with the Paul Carlson Partnership but she didn’t have enough experience at the time. She married Dwain Tissell, who went on to serve as pastor at Covenant churches in Seattle and then Surrey, British Columbia. The couple and their four children then moved to Portland to plant Eastridge Covenant Church. While there, she learned of MTI and traveled with them on a month-long trip to set up mobile medical clinics in Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1999.
Tissell says she loves working with patients but even more so training and learning from local residents. “With regard to our skills, there is so much we can do abroad, but I think the best projects have to do with education. It’s fine to go down and build something, but if you’re not building alongside a local person so you can impart a new way of doing something—and learn from them, too—then it won’t be sustainable. It’s a great experience for you, but it won’t make a long-term impact.”
The experiences can be overwhelming, Tissell says, but she has learned to process them when she gets home just as she does in her work as a trauma nurse at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital. After being with people in the refugee camps or treating people following natural disasters, she prays for them when she returns home.
Until two years ago, she was working 50 hours a week, split between the hospital and another medical practice, but then she cut back to 30 hours. Her employers have been supportive of her work, she says, adding she takes between one and three trips a year.
“I’ve had hundreds of people say, ‘I want to do what you’re doing some day.’ But you have to realize that it comes at a personal cost—and not just the work but also the emotional and physical toll,” Tissell said shortly after a recent trip to the Kutupango refugee camp. “You really have to structure your life around it.”
She adds, “There are lot of things I haven’t participated in my career because I had to leave my schedule free. There have been jobs I haven’t taken because of that. But those are small sacrifices in order to be available to do this.”