Hands-on experience

HANCOCK – Finlandia University’s three-credit REL/SOC 236 course offers student the opportunity to take the concepts discussed in class and apply them during real-life situations – in Tanzania. For nursing students in the course, the trip can be a life-changing experience.

“We can talk about different cultural perspectives and how they play into healthcare during lecture,” said Mark Miron, assistant professor of nursing at Finlandia and one of the trip supervisors. “Going out and experiencing it, though, is completely different.”

The 2013 trip marks the second year that the program contains a nursing-specific aspect. Five of the eight student participants are nurses who, during their trip to Tanzania, will spend a full week shadowing nurses at Muhimbili National Hospital in the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.

Each day at the hospital, the students are able to choose an area of interest to them, such as pediatrics, childbirth or emergency, and shadow a nurse in that unit, assisting whenever possible. As the native language of Tanzania is Swahili, the students more commonly than not encounter a language barrier that prevents them from speaking directly with patients. According to Miron, this limited interaction can be frustrating to the students.

The difficulties presented by the language differences are just the beginning for the Finlandia nursing students. Dar es Salaam has a population of over three million, roughly the size of Chicago, but the hospital emergency room has only eight beds. They lack what most Americans would consider basic supplies, like gloves and sanitary masks, and the hospital is not equipped to serve the large population of the city or the referrals from around the country.

“Every morning when you get to the hospital there is a huge crowd waiting, just hoping to be seen by a doctor that day,” said Miron. “Some people get in, but some just don’t. …It’s just unimaginable until you go there.”

Miron recounted an experience of a 2012 participant who chose to work in the pediatric burn unit. The student assisted Tanzanian nurses in changing the wound dressings – without the use of anesthetics.

“One of the strongest, mentally toughest students on the trip went and worked in a pediatric burn unit where they would change the dressing without using any anesthetics,” he explained. “The first day that student walked out of there completely pale with tears in her eyes.”

Despite the emotionally trying work, however, Miron said the students always want to go back the next day. The day following her unsettling experience, that same student returned to the pediatric burn unit, expressing a desire to help wherever she could, a sentiment Miron said the nursing students on the trip have in common. He does recognize the students’ need to unburden at the end of the day and instituted debriefing sessions where they can discuss their experiences from that day’s work with their peers.

“I realized we had to do debriefings at the end of the day because they were a little traumatized by what they had seen,” Miron said. “But every one of them just wanted to return and help people.”

The trip lasts three weeks including travel time, involving two 24-hour flights. In addition to their week at Muhimbili National Hospital, the students participate in activities unique to the area. They go on a guided safari tour in northern Tanzania where, Miron said, they see amazing animals in a natural environment.

Tanzania lies across the equator and the group takes one day to enjoy the beautiful beaches the country offers.

They also participate in a program organized by a Tanzanian Lutheran diocese where they stay in the homes of local residents for a few days.

Miron fully believes that the experiences the nursing students gain during the trip change their lives and will benefit them as they step into the role of nurses.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this experience will stay with the students forever,” Miron said. “How can it not?”