With the high, hot sun beating down on her in Nebbi, Uganda, Joliet Junior College Nursing Professor Lynn Noell, for the first time, made her way to the hospital where she’d be spending most of her days teaching nine eager African nurses some of the same lessons she teaches her students at JJC.
After raising enough money, Noell flew to Nebbi in mid-May to begin her month-long teaching adventure with the Health Volunteers Overseas Organization. When Noell, a former Peace Corps volunteer, arrived at the hospital that first day, she knew what she was in for – but she didn’t know what to expect.
The Showers Foundation Health Center, where Noell was assigned to teach, has no running water, no air conditioning, no common furniture, and barely enough light for surgery. The cement floors provide little relief to sleeping mothers on hot nights as they huddle next to the rusty hospital cribs that hold their sick babies. Bugs, wasps, and mosquitos are the norm, flying through the hospital’s unscreened windows. Patients with malaria, cholera, and typhoid – many of them children – are roommates, no matter their age or illness.
With exam paper she pulled off patient tables, Noell began her lessons by taping the blank sheets to a wall to use as a whiteboard. There, she spent each week, marker in hand, teaching the nurses about infection control, wound dressing, IV therapy techniques, assessments, documentation, and more. Noell even helped the hospital staff put together a list of policies and procedures.
Even though much of the teaching took place when she had her makeshift whiteboard on the wall, Noell thought the nurses learned best when she was with them one-on-one and making rounds.
But the nurses weren’t the only ones who were learning. Each day, Noell would wake up to find out something new about the culture of the Luo people she called her neighbors. For example, the Luo have no need to preserve food because the warm climate is perfect for growing all year round. Women could transport and carry 40 pounds of water on their heads – with exceptional ease – because of their excellent posture. The most surprising thing Noell learned was that many Luo live in the present, without preparing for their needs in the future.
At the hospital, Noell learned how to treat tropical illnesses, and that even though the supplies were low, a lot could be accomplished with very few resources.
“It’s an education within itself when you see other people and how they live,” she said. “It opens up your eyes to the world.”
Not having running water was perhaps the biggest problem at the hospital. With no practical way to do it, the nurses and doctor didn’t wash their hands, and according to Noell, there were no tissues, paper towels, or cloth towels. Patients and visitors alike walked barefoot on the hospital floors.
“Even though the bacteria was invisible, you could almost see it going from patient to patient to patient,” Noell said.
But these cultural habits didn’t interfere with the nurses’ talent and desire to learn.
With only one part-time doctor on hand, the nurses functioned more like nurse practitioners, according to Noell, and several on staff who hadn’t completed their schooling yet, acted as licensed RNs. They don’t have a choice – when people were sick or hurt, they had to treat them.
“They have a tough job and their powers of critical thinking are superb – they have to be,” Noell said.
When Noell brought them books, they turned each page with fascination, and read as much as they could. She said textbooks are a luxury for Ugandan nursing students because they do not get them in their programs.
One day near the end of her trip, Noell experienced what it was like to be a patient at the hospital. She woke up one morning in a slight panic – the rubber tip of her hearing aid was stuck, deep in her ear canal. With the doctor away at a workshop, the nurses were her only hope. After many tries, instead of it coming out, the rubber tip became lodged even further into her ear. At one point, Noell couldn’t hear anything.
“I was getting nervous,” Noell admitted. “Then Juliet went to the storage room and dug in a box for the smallest tweezer-like surgical instrument with blunt ends that she could find. It worked! This was a nurse – I will call her a nurse because she functions like one and is very knowledgeable and experienced, but is not an RN – who had a woman come in to the hospital with a partial spontaneous abortion. Juliet delivered the placenta in surgery – no doctor. At any rate, I have a lot of respect for them.”
As her journey began to wind down, Noell said she was sad to leave the hospital, the nurses – who, really, had become more like family – and others who helped her along the way. In particular, Noell grew close to a woman named Scovia who, on the first day introduced herself as Noell’s “maid,” but by the last day, was Noell’s very good friend.
“They welcomed me and I made many, many wonderful friends, and I hope to continue my relationship with them,” Noell said. “It was so rewarding, a great experience. It helped me to appreciate everything I have.”
Although her trip proved to be challenging, Noell said she wouldn’t change it for the world. She is thankful she was given the opportunity to go and will never forget the people of Nebbi, Uganda, who will forever be in her heart.
To read more about Noell’s volunteer trip in Nebbi, Uganda, visit her blog at http://lynnstravels.tumblr.com.
To get more information about the nursing program at JJC, log on to http://www.jjc.edu/academics/divisions/nursing-allied-health.