Jenny Schimak, a long-time, online friend of mine is a (mature-aged, I’m sure she won’t mind that description) student nurse from Queensland, Australia. Last Christmas, Jenny spent time on a vocational trip, nursing in Tanzania. Jenny was good enough to share some of her experiences and photos in this interview.
Where did you first hear about a nursing trip to Tanzania and what was it that lead you to decide that you really had to do it?
The nursing laboratory at university, has photos on the corridor wall from the 2010 trip. Every week waiting for class to begin, I’d just look at them over again, and think to myself what an amazing experience that would be. It wasn’t until the end of 2011 that a meeting was called for interested parties who wished to find out more about doing the trip at the end of 2012. I went along, knowing that I couldn’t afford it, and that it was ridiculous to even consider it, but I knew that going along to a meeting was free and I had to know more.
I know your family is very important to you, how did you feel about leaving your family over the Christmas period? How did your boys react to the news that Mum wouldn’t be home for Christmas?
As I decided pretty much not long after the meeting to actually go, with Peter’s blessing, I just told the kids and knew that as it was over 12 months that there was enough time to get used to the idea. We still celebrated Christmas, albeit three weeks early, whilst I was still on placement, so food was much less elaborate than I’d normally do, but it worked really well. The whole family was together and for all intents and purposes it was our Christmas. I tried my best for the kids not to miss out on anything. We always celebrate Christmas Eve, so the kids and Peter still had the other family stuff for Christmas Day.
How was your travel organised? Did you travel in a group or did you meet your group when you arrived in Tanzania?
Most of us travelled together. There were over twenty of us who went. All women of differing ages from 19 to 50+. A very diverse bunch of women. Some went elsewhere beforehand and met us over there. Some of us arranged our own flights and arrived at a later date. It was a bit tricky travelling together as we all had to check in together, but overall it worked really well.
What was your accommodation like when you got there? What was your initial reaction?
Being wealthy, relatively speaking, compared to most people who live in Tanzania, our accommodation was fairly grand. We had a TV, wi fi internet (thank God), food catered for (interesting food), bunk beds, bathrooms with western toilets. The house was large and fairly clean. We had an outside area where we could sit and enjoy the garden area. I felt relieved that it was okay, and seriously after almost 40 hours of travel, I was so exhausted that a cave would have appeared good.
When did you start working, straight-away or did you have time to acclimatise to your new surroundings?
The people who ran the program, and the house, were fabulous to us. We had the weekend when we arrived and were driven to banks, walked around the town, shown good places to eat, and we were able to get our bearings. The orientation program lasted for a couple of days and we had a crash course on Swahili, were given house rules, told to be safe and not go anywhere alone at night, told that there were reputable taxi drivers, given SIM cards, and given a fabulous overview of what to expect. This was invaluable, as the culture is so different to ours that it was important to be introduced to certain things. We had house sisters, who cooked and cleaned for us, security day and night, and our house was a locked compound at night.
What did your job entail and what were your favourite parts of the job? Were your working conditions better or worse than you’d expected?
We were all spread out through different facilities. Some of us went to hospitals. A few women even lived away from the main compound during the week as their hospital was too far away. So they came back to the house on the weekends. In the hospital compound they were looked after too, but where we could go into town in the afternoons, to go shopping or for lunch, they were restricted to the hospital compound as there was nothing else around the area. The working conditions were as I expected. I was placed in a medical centre that had a small in patient facility attached. The entire time I was there though, we only had a few patients, and about two women deliver babies. I had prepared myself for the lack of equipment and resources. It was interesting that we had to clean every morning. That task isn’t left to cleaning staff, so we’d have our steel basin with a ratty old cloth, and we’d dust all the beds down, the windows, tables and benches. We would even have to clean the ‘clean’ areas as all the windows were unscreened and open, there was a new gathering of dead insects everyday.
Did you learn anything significant about yourself or do you feel that your trip in any way changed your outlook on life?
I was touched by the warmth and respect that was shown to me by the local people. They were so happy to have us there helping them. As I was older than many of the girls, I felt that in some ways I was looked up to, which was very special. Married women and mothers are highly respected in their culture, and this carried over to me. I was at the clinic with a much younger friend, and yet whenever a doctor or RN would speak to us, they always looked at me and would often ask me my thoughts.
I felt that it was something that all teens should do at least once. I think kids should see how other people live. How they can manage without all their technology, and having so little and yet they’re so happy, polite and respectful. They are a beautiful people, with a deep faith in God, and it just warmed my heart. They’re the kind of people that you can do things for and you really know that they appreciate what you do for them. We took lots of things with us, toys, colouring in books, skipping ropes, clothing, medical equipment, and it was beautiful to see that these items were so much needed and appreciated.
I also now have a deeper respect for the nursing care that we have in our country. Not only did the Tanzania facilities lack in medical supplies, their nursing care was virtually non existent. Their nursing training is very medically oriented, and simple things such as compassion, empathy, the importance of nutrition and hydration for example, are not utilized at all. Even as a student nurse I had more knowledge than the RNs in Tanzania. The hospitals are equipped to feed patients, or to even give them water. There is no supplied linen…..a very different state of affairs.
It also taught me to be resourceful. For example I was assisting with the resuscitation of a newborn. The facility had no way of keeping the baby warm, so we emptied a thermos of tea into a water bottle, wrapped it into a kanga, and lay it beside the newborn. There was no hot water on tap, and nothing for a neonate in trouble that could keep the babe warm.
Would you do it again? Would you recommend others to do the same? And if so, do you have any tips for anyone else thinking about the same sort of trip?
I would definitely love to do it again, perhaps in a different country. If you have a heart for teaching others and showing empathy, then it’s definitely worthwhile. For example, their women in labour have no support what so ever. There’s no pain management, and no one to look after you to make sure that you are drinking water, no one talks to you, other than to do an internal examination. So to be by a labouring woman’s side, holding her hand, rubbing her back, ensuring that she drank water, changing her kanga (sarong used as a sheet) when it became soiled, was a privilege. I had concerns that perhaps this kind of care would be frowned upon, but if I walked away from her, she would reach out and grab me back. I would definitely prefer to be a fully qualified RN, rather than a student. As I saw so many things done in a way that would be wrong here, I was reluctant to give my point of view because I was still a student. I would also take along more of my own equipment. I looked after women, where I would pay for medical supplies, as the hospital had none, and the patients were meant to bring their own. So I would take more consumables, rather than just the gloves and alcohol hand sanitizer that I took. For example the injections they used for their baby vaccinations were a larger calibre needle than we would use here, so I would take my own small gauge needles. (There was no point in saying that the needles were far too big, as there was no alternative. So, it’s basically vaccinate the baby in a more painful way, or not at all.) I was there as a visitor and so often had to keep my mouth shut and err on the side of diplomacy. The World Health Organization does an amazing job at supplying baby immunizations and contraception, which is free of charge. Having said that, it costs people 50 cents per doctor’s visit, and many people can not even afford that!
Do you have any links about your experience to share with us?
We did a lot of fundraising. Without it I couldn’t have gone. I had personal events for myself and also did a lot of group type things and our lecturer who organized the entire trip, was an amazing guide in the experience. Without her, the trip would not have happened. Sadly, she retired from the university after she returned so I was blessed to have been one of the few who was able to do this trip, as I doubt that another lecturer would take on this massive task.
This is the group who organized our program. They are a couple who own the house, and organize the internship prorgrams.
Many, many thanks to Jenny for sharing her experience with us.