Be the change you want to see in the world. ~ Ghandi

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wendy Libowitz tells about her trip to Tanzania

I have always loved to travel and visit other parts of the world.  For years I had dreamed of having the opportunity to do some type of work abroad and fantasized about joining the Peace Corps, but life took me in another direction.  So, when the chance to participate in my first international mission arose in 2008 I took it, albeit with some trepidation.  Having loved that first trip, I sought out other opportunities, which lead me to Missions For Humanity.  Missions for Humanity is a non-profit organization which sends teams to both Honduras and Tanzania annually in the summer to serve some of the world’s poorest communities.  Teams provide medical, dental, and humanitarian aid as well as work with local school children and teachers.  Groups have been traveling to Honduras since 2004 and Tanzania since 2007. In Tanzania, Missions For Humanity operates in conjunction with Caritas Dar Es Salaam, another organization, which essentially serves as Mission For Humanity’s in country hosting organization.

I recently returned from a trip to Tanzania, Africa from July 5 – July 19, 2013.  This was my second mission with Missions For Humanity having previously served in 2011.  This year I was a part of a group of 22 people from the United States – two physicians, one dentist, one dental assistant, two nurse practitioners, two nurses, seven teachers, one college student, and six high school students.  Volunteers from the USA were joined by a large number of Tanzanian staff from Caritas who served as our drivers, guides, interpreters, and coordinators.

This year our work in Tanzania occurred in rural communities typically within a two to three hour driving radius of Dar Es Salaam, a city on the Indian ocean in the more southern part of Tanzania. The care provided in the medical clinic I would describe as that of an acute illness/primary care nature with conditions treated including both acute and chronic illnesses.  Patients ranged in age from newborns to the elderly.  Approximately 1350 people were served in Tanzania in 2013.  All care at the clinics was provided for free.  All of the supplies and medications used at the clinic were brought to Africa from the United States, which amounted to over 50 pieces of luggage transported by our group.  My primary work role in the clinics was that of the “pharmacist,” preparing and dispensing prescriptions and providing the necessary patient teaching regarding such things as medication purpose, dosing/administration, storage, and side effects.

Some of the highlights…

The hugs, smiles, handshakes, and words of thanks I received from many local people.  Although in my mind my actions in many ways were small or what I could give patients limited, the deep appreciation people showed me was heart warming.  The knowledge that in some small way I contributed to making people feel cared for and not forgotten in an underserved part of the world was a powerful experience.

The team was a highlight of the trip.  Participants from the USA ranged in age from about 14 to 73.  I really enjoyed the multi-generational makeup of the participants.  Working in collaboration with local staff enhanced the experience as well.   It’s interesting to me how you can take essentially a group of strangers and some acquaintances and after a few weeks a great camaraderie and friendship develops.

One evening our entire group was invited to the home of the Caritas director for dinner along with all his staff.  This was an amazing, once in a lifetime cultural experience.  There was an enormous feast with many foods I had never seen before. There was lots of time to socialize.  I sat with a young man who clearly was extremely knowledgeable about his country, providing so much information and answering questions.  Overall the evening was delightful with perfect weather, wonderful food, and great company.  I will never forget this night in my life and how welcomed I felt in Tanzania.

On a long drive one evening I overheard three adolescent American students and one Tanzanian young man sharing their passion for music.  Despite the thousands of miles between their two countries they shared many of the same favorite artists. Listening to them sing and connect over their common interest was a shining example of human similarities and common interests in a world which often seems to focus on differences.

An unusual experience on the trip was having the opportunity to teach bottle feeding in a rural village.   At one village, twin infants (about eight weeks old), whose mother had died following childbirth, were brought to the clinic.  The provider who saw them was concerned as one of the infants, in particular, seemed developmentally delayed and poorly nourished.  Both were reportedly being fed cow’s milk.  The following day our group delivered baby formula and bottle feeding supplies to the community.  I had the opportunity to explain bottle feeding via an interpreter.  While it seemed unusual to promote bottle feeding in a society where that is not the norm, it seemed like the best option for helping these babies receive better nutrition.  After leaving the supplies in the village my fingers were crossed that the new experience would be successful.  Feedback from local staff a few days later was that the babies were taking the formula well.

A final highlight for me was that my 17 year-old daughter accompanied me on this trip as a student volunteer.  She loved the trip!  The experience for her was maturing and educational.   She valued being part of a team, enjoyed the work, and loved playing with local children.   Both during and subsequent to the trip her participation sparked great conversations between us as she shared thoughts on topics such as poverty, happiness, health care access, and ethical dilemmas.  She learned many things, which neither I nor a textbook could ever have taught her.

Visiting a country as a nurse on a mission has given me perspectives I would never have obtained through travel alone.  I have seen parts of countries which would never be on the “tourist” route.”  I have had the privilege of getting a glimpse into the lives of local communities and understanding in more detail some of the health challenges facing the developing world.   I do however, recommend trying to find the time to see some of the “touristy” things a country has to offer as, in my opinion, that’s part of the fun of the experience.

I’ve found working in a developing country to be a humbling experience.  In my daily life I often feel stressed, like I’m on a treadmill trying to keep pace with my responsibilities – family, work, home, etc.  I never take time to look at how fortunate I am in my life.  I take for or granted that I have access to clean water, ample food, health care, and free education for my daughters.  On my mission I observed in wonder that people would walk miles to receive healthcare.  I was moved by the hug of a patient who thanked me because she would otherwise not have been able to afford to see a medical provider or pay for medication.  I felt so appreciated by someone who just wanted to shake my hand and offer their words of gratitude in some cases because I gave them something as simple as a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste.  When reflecting back on my mission the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” comes to mind.  I am reminded to put my stressors and experiences into a new perspective, appreciating all that I have and knowing that some of what I believe in my mind to be important, taxing, or stressful in the scheme of things and the greater world really is not.

Mission work has been a career highlight for me.  It gets to the heart of why I chose to become a nurse in the first place, the desire to help others.  I enjoy the challenge of functioning in a resource limited setting and getting creative, at times, in order to help patients.  On this mission, as with the others, I came home feeling as though I took away more from the experience than I gave.  I hope to have another opportunity to work abroad in the future.  In fact, I hope to someday be in a situation that allows me to do it for a longer timeframe.

I encourage other nurses or people interested in participating in some type of volunteer experience to try to find a way to make it happen.  People sometimes say to me that they think it’s great I’ve gone on missions and they too would like to.  However, that comment is usually followed by a list of perceived reasons preventing them.  Some of those issues are real limitations, but many people, I think, just need a cheering squad to help them pursue their dream.  If it’s your dream, try to make it happen.  It’s not easy in many ways…time away from work and family, sometimes long journeys to get places, lack of creature comforts, but likely you will feel fulfilled by the experience and then, I suspect, be looking for your next opportunity.

Thank you One Nurse At A Time and Barco's Nightingales. The financial assistance you provided was tremendously helpful.  But also, thank you for giving international/volunteer nursing a presence and encouraging nurses to get involved.  It’s wonderful to have an organization that values the contributions nurses can make outside of their regular work environment.