With the world at our fingertips every time we watch television or turn on a computer, the reporting of disasters, both natural and man-made, can prompt those of us in healthcare and many other professions to genuinely think about stepping outside our everyday contribution to society and putting up our hands to help.
Whether you are actually in a position to turn that thought into reality depends on so many factors. How long would you go for? If you decide on weeks or months, can you afford to go without an income or take a break from your job? Can you leave family and friends? Fortunately, there are dedicated people who answer yes to those and many other questions every day and just do it.
There are numerous organisations that provide the means and support for people wishing to volunteer their services to those most in need.
Some large organisations, like Red Cross and Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), are widely known as they use the media to raise awareness or give an assessment of the plight of people across the globe.
One organisation that I spoke to takes volunteers from all over the world. They place people in areas such as nursing, medicine, teaching and many other positions for short and long contracts. The length of their volunteer assignments range from two weeks upwards. This means that even your annual leave could provide a window of opportunity for you to have a life-changing experience.
Before you decide on which organisation to go with, so your research. There can be costs involved where you cover the travel, medical and personal indemnity insurance and pay for your own airfares. Make sure that you know what is included during the trip.
Check that you have support from people in the organisation where you are placed so that you have someone to go to if problems arise and someone to guide you through the initial part when you arrive.
Two student nurses who recently used their university holidays to volunteer with Projects Abroad generously shared their experiences with me.
Lucy used part of her uni holidays to work in a 100-bed hospital in Tanzania for a month at the end of last year. She told me, ‘I basically just helped the other nurses and doctors out where I could, and assisted patients where needed. There was a language barrier, but during my stay, I picked up enough of the language to have a small conversation with patients, with the help of hand gestures.
She found the whole process very easy, because the staff at both ends, ‘helped me out heaps and answered all my numerous questions.’
Lucy feels that, ‘the nursing experience was invaluable and something every first world medical professional should experience. It made me realise how lucky we are and the vast amount of resources we have.’
Megan went to Nepal for six weeks in her mid-year uni break this year. She was placed in Chitwan, several hours away from Kathmandu, which she found hard at first due to the isolation. With her host family, she slept in the lounge and there was no privacy. The food was traditional Nepalese and consisted mainly of carbohydrates, lentils and limited vegetables. She found eating the same thing every day a bit of a challenge.
Megan provided some fascinating insights about her time in Nepal. ‘The placement was not at all what I was expecting. I pictured overworked nurses in need of assistance, with lots of sick, dying, poor people. Essentially, I was going in to save the world! Which is a positive, but very naive way to go into a volunteer project.’
Overall though, she says, ‘I learnt, saw and was a part of so many things in the hospital. We were allowed to stand in on surgeries and ask as many questions as we liked, which was an amazing and rare experience.’ She also got to be involved in delivering babies. In Nepal, for cultural reasons, the family are not allowed in the labour room, so, ‘Suddenly, I was the one that the mother was gripping so tight that I was sure my hand would break!’
From what they and others have told me, the most important things when taking on a volunteer position is go equipped with as much information as you can about where you are going and how it all works, and make sure that you are covered with insurance. It is a good idea to check out other volunteers’ experiences and stories with the organisation you are looking at joining and if possible talk to them. They will be able to offer lots of advice.
These two students will always remember their unique experiences and surely it will help make them wonderful registered nurses.