June 11, 2019

Meet The Nurses That Travel The World To Save Lives

Meet The Nurses That Travel The World To Save Lives

By Elaine Alston

Why someone would travel without pay to care for another human life that they did not know has always been intriguing to me. These nurses work in deplorable conditions, poor weather climates, and ill-infested populations.  What is the appeal of this rigorous work environment that others would view as a death trap? 

Since 2017, I have been documenting nurses who have done these medical mission trips.  

A day in the life of a medical mission

To understand what medical mission nursing entails, we need to look at a day in the life of a medical mission nurse.  

After a 16+ hour nonstop flight and 8,250 miles later, Dina, a volunteer RN, arrives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Going through customs, baggage claim and loading up in the van was smooth sailing. 

Sights of people with baskets on their head, tons of small cars, and swarms of people selling various items on street corners are what Dina expected. She did not expect to see the intricately designed homes and buildings. The sophisticated toll systems and the number of luxury cars weren't what she had envisioned a so-called third-world country would look like. 

Nonetheless, she kept moving, high off anxiety and the anticipation of saving the world

Upon arrival to a gated community, she was surprised she wouldn't be staying in a hut or an indigenous community. The 24-hour security guards that stood solid, with looks that could kill, made her feel safe in an unknown area. 

A decade ago, a mission trip might have taken her to an indigenous society. Teammates would primarily be made up of retirees, most of them religiously affiliated. At that time, medical mission nurses would work to the bone, go home and check off it off their bucket list. 

We have changed the culture of medical missions. Attracting more working-class nurses who are active in the field allows one to bring back experiences which may be applied to their nursing practice.  

Getting acquainted with the medical mission team

When Dina and the others walked into their living quarters, it wasn’t the typical hostel packed with 15 team members in bunk beds. As the 4 of them unpacked and got settled in, they were ready for the first official “meet and greet” of the mission team. Going over the agenda, schedules and projects were the main priority. 

The daily schedule consisted of waking up at 5:30 am (queue noises of birds that sounded like Jurassic Park was just outside the door). Nurses would then depart for work by 6:45 am. Packed like sardines, the ride was 30-45-minutes to the clinic.  

Nurses would then start a 7-hour shift where they would see upwards of 100 patients to provide care and services such as: 

  • HIV screening
  • TB screening
  • Triage
  • ER
  • Pre and post-natal care
  • Women’s health and family planning
  • Mental health assessments
  • Education
  • Mobile clinic to rural areas
  • Lab work

Finally, a 30-minute debriefing session would signal the end of the day, followed by another 30-45 minute “sardine can” ride back to the lodge.  

As the team reflects on their first day, tears of sadness overwhelm Kattie D., RN. “I saw a woman who was severely sick, but she allowed the elder women behind her to go first, out of respect for her age. Everyone is so considerate, and the level of respect is far greater than I have ever seen.” 

Joyce B., RN shared, “I’m so impressed with the way the comprehensive healthcare system works here. Everything is streamlined and so organized. Although they don’t use a computer system for documentation, they don’t skip a beat.” And as Tiffany G., RN recalled her day, “The nurses are looked in higher regard, and the patients show more respect for the nurse.” 

Continuing to Day 2

With eyes halfway opened, the team struggles but presses on. The ER is packed! With 3 beds, a couple of couches and chairs to use, Nurse Millie must determine the severity of each patient and place them accordingly. With only one staff nurse in the ER, she directs us to get the job done in an orderly and efficient manner.  

We ask Nurse Millie: how would you have survived if we were not there? Sister Mille says, in her soft toned voice, “I would have done the best that I can. Without funding, the clinic cannot afford to pay professional nurses. We rely on the hands of volunteers to help.” 

We end our day riding back in complete silence. We were exhausted, over stimulated and overwhelmed with emotion. Surprisingly, it did not change our eagerness to do it all again the next day. 

Reflecting on volunteering abroad 

The fulfillment I received in this nursing enrichment program is exactly what I needed. I started to wonder what I was missing at home in my nursing profession. Why don’t I feel the same get up and go as I do here? Is it because we must be conscientious of customer service, so our hospital receives 5-star ratings? I understand compliance but I just want them to let us do what we do best! 

My mission work in South Africa has made me rethink my approach to nursing.  I want to be the best nurse I can be.  Although I may not agree with all the politics of our healthcare systems in the US, it should not affect my nursing care. “You see how little someone else may have yet they’ve giving quality care and you may have more, and you ask yourself, what am I complaining about?  I better give quality care to my patient.” Deborah K. RN

One of the main questions I ask the nurses I interview is, “What is one of the biggest differences they see in South Africa vs the US?” The most profound answer to date has been, “South African nurses don’t allow politics to get in the way of how they care for their patients. Quality care stays precedent over everything, and they do their job as if their life depended on it.” Anonymous.  

As I interview, Kimberley J., RN, she says that volunteering abroad has been a desire of hers for as long as she could remember. “Images of being in a desolate area, with this earthy orange colored dirt and helping someone who really needs my help, was the driving force.” 

Nurses have an instinctive altruistic being instilled in our soul. Our nature fuels our desire to help ones in need, especially if we categorize them as vulnerable. If you saw a child about to run out into oncoming traffic, instinctively, you would run after that child to save them. This instinctive characteristic is stronger in some and less in others.  

Unlike traditional mission trips, medical missions have the added aspect of a healthcare component. Whether disaster relief or a focused driven project, a medical professional can infuse both to create a well-balanced humanitarian experience. “I feel like my work in 3rd world countries is so much more appreciated. It’s not that I want to be patted on the back for every procedure that I do, because I did choose this career path. It’s because of the love I have for this profession, makes me yearn for patients to feel the same but in gratitude.” Vanessa H., RN.   

As I think back on how Nurse Millie conducted herself in the toughest conditions with compassion and the utmost care and respect for her job and her patients. In essence, I feel so free in a place that has nothing but happiness and gratitude. When you love what you do and do it with freedom, that is pure bliss. 

That is the power of giving back.    


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