What it takes to volunteer as a nurse or a midwife in a developing country

Gabriella Ocenasek

Have you ever had a burning desire to volunteer as a nurse or a midwife in a developing country but not sure what’s involved? Registered nurse Jeneane Allen shares her insights on volunteering as a nurse in Kenya and Nepal.

Jeneane spent nearly as much time in Africa than at home in Australia last year. Volunteering as a nurse through not for profit aid organisation World Youth International’s Nurses in Action program, Janeane spent over five months in Kenya which enabled her to experience the culture and further develop her skills in nursing, all the while supporting vulnerable communities. She has also volunteered on a Nurses in Action program in Nepal.

Why did you choose to volunteer for World Youth International?

I have been an emergency nurse at Albury Wodonga Public Hospital in Victoria, Australia for over 12 years.

I saw an advertisement for World Youth International in a nursing magazine and thought that my emergency skills would be beneficial on a Nurses in Action program. I certainly was able to put my skills to good use in 2017 during my first program, as I was placed in a hospital’s emergency ward in Nepal.

It was such a worthwhile experience. With many friendships made along the way, I realised I wanted to keep volunteering.

In 2019 there was an opportunity to go to Kenya on another program as assistant team leader. I then stayed on to be a team leader a few months later.

What were the biggest differences between working in an emergency department in Australia compared to Nepal?

I was placed with two other Australians on the Nurses in Action Program in the Nepali Hospital’s emergency ward for two weeks.

During that time, I was heartbroken by the environment compared to where I worked back home. There is no triage system, and patients are asked to pay a fee before they are treated (although I never saw anyone turned away who couldn’t pay).

The lack of workable equipment was mind-blowing. On one occurrence we needed to resuscitate a patient however the defibrillator wasn’t working. We often couldn’t escalate care due to the limitations of the available equipment. There was a particular devastating case where a baby was born via emergency c-section and needed incubation. The skills of the midwives on our team were invaluable, but without access to the proper NICU equipment the baby only made it through 48 hours before passing away.

That same baby may have had a fighting chance of survival if it were born in an Australian hospital. Having worked in emergency for many years, I was able to adapt to these situations. It was crucial to debrief as a team afterwards, to talk it out together.

When you volunteered in Odede, Kenya, what was one of the biggest health issues within the community?

Malaria is the biggest health issue facing the people of Odede and surrounding villages, with adults and children regularly suffering from the mosquito-borne disease. For adults, Malaria can mean having a fever, feeling very sick and unwell, even being admitted to hospital- which can devastatingly impact on their ability to work and earn an income. With most families in Odede living in extreme poverty, an adult’s inability to work can mean entire families suffer.

For children under five and elderly people, Malaria can result in severe illness, and even death.

Within our programs there is a big focus on malaria prevention. This included spending time at a large community school to host education sessions on malaria prevention, which stressed to the children the importance of using their mosquito nets at night, educating on malaria symptoms, and encouraging them to attend the Odede Community Health Centre if they experience these symptoms.

You worked as a team leader for Nurses in Action – what skills do you need to have in this role?

Time management and strong communication skills are essential. We need to also have patience, as many things don’t go to plan and we must adapt and be flexible.

What was the most memorable experience on the program that you will cherish forever?

Being an emergency nurse, I hadn’t been involved in any births for many years, however when I was in Kenya I assisted a midwife named Miranda on our team with a birth of a baby boy.

It was a natural and very beautiful birth and it meant a lot to me to be able to support the mother. After cutting the cord, the baby’s mother asked Miranda to choose his name. Because there are sometimes two or three women in the same room at the community health centre giving birth, family members are not usually permitted to be in the room with the mothers, so myself and other Nurses in Action volunteers are a big support on these very special occasions.

What aspect of the program do you think had the strongest impact?

During the program, we hosted a Children’s Day at the Odede Community Health Centre. Over 60 children attended for fun educational activities.

Children’s Day is an opportunity for the community’s most vulnerable children to have access to education, health checkups, and a nutritious meal that they would not otherwise get.

We sang songs with the children, practiced counting in English, and hosted a session on handwashing and dental care. This included demonstrating how to use a toothbrush and wash their hands with soap. Dental hygiene is a huge issue for people living in poverty in Kenya.

Many families don’t have the ability to purchase toothbrushes and toothpaste regularly, and as a result the Odede Health Centre often sees both children and adults suffering from dental issues. Unfortunately dental care in Kenya is extremely expensive, and so the best way to prevent this is for kids to learn hygiene early, and have access to toothbrushes.

As these children live in extreme poverty they will often only get one meal a day, so on this day they were supplied a nutritious meal, which gave them the energy to continue on the day’s activities of skipping and playing football.

What was the hardest aspect about the program?

The hardest aspect about the program for me was coming back home. It was a shock being back after living five months in a developing country. I am so grateful for what we have here in Australia- the comforts but more importantly the accessibility to healthcare and medical equipment. I also really miss the Kenyan culture; the genuine friendliness of the Kenyan people, in particular the children who are so happy even just by our team’s presence there.

Overall, what inspires you most about the nursing profession?

What inspires me is being able to help people at their most vulnerable. It means so much to see people get better and know that I have been part of their journey

What are five most important things you brought with you on your Nurses In Action program that you couldn’t go without?

  1. It’s very important to unwind and relax as a team at the end of each day. Therefore, it’s a good idea to bring books, card games, and music.
  2. Having a diary to write in and reflect is helpful.
  3. A good quality camera to capture the moments.
  4. An open mind as you will most definitely see and experience things you have never been exposed to, and it can be quite confronting.
  5. A willingness to learn and immerse yourself in the culture. There are busy days but also quiet days. Whenever I got the chance, I would sit and have a friendly chat with the locals, in particular the local nurses and community workers.

To find out more about World Youth’s Nurses in Action program go to: https://worldyouth.org.au/volunteer/nurses-in-action

Gabriella Ocenasek is the Marketing & Communications officer for World Youth International, Australia

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