Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Jam-Packed Week One In Laos for Notre Dame Nursing Students

PROGRAM: UniBreak Groups
PROJECT: Nursing
WRITTEN BY: Maeve Hawkes, Notre Dame University

After a long lead up of planning meetings, fundraising events and much excitement, we were almost surprised to find ourselves actually in Laos. Arriving in Luang Prabang airport on Sunday the 10th of May, our group of 10 students and two teachers agreed that it felt surreal to finally begin the experience that we had so long talked about. Our first night we relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful My Lao Home hotel and prepared ourselves for the long journey ahead of us.

On Monday morning we heaved our packs into the trucks and piled in, headed for the Army Hospital in Luang Prabang. We were greeted by the Director of the hospital, who gave us a warm welcome and provided us with information about the hospital and some of the most common health complaints of its patients (in particular respiratory conditions and diarrheal disease), and what he perceived to be the hospital's greatest needs for the future. We then had a tour of the hospital and were interested to identify significant differences between this health care setting and our hospitals at home. In particular we were struck by the high density of patients within each room and the fact that the family is expected to provide basic care for patients such as washing and feeding. It was humbling to see how privileged we are to have the medical resources that we take for granted at home.

Then it was back to the trucks for the two-hour drive to our first home-stay village on the mountainous dirt roads. Although the road was bumpy and dusty, the spectacular views of lush green mountains above us, the smiling faces that waved to us as we drove past and the rushing river below us all took our minds off these discomforts. When we arrived, the children of the village presented us with armfuls of handpicked flowers and welcomed us warmly. We felt overwhelmed by the kindness that we were shown both on our arrival and throughout our stay in the village.

After being officially welcomed to the village by the chief, we were shown to our new homes for the week! The style of housing and living conditions were definitely a big change from our lives in Perth and it took a few days for us to really settle in. It certainly helped to all have each other and to be focused on the goal that we had come here to achieve. The copious amounts of fresh cooked food that we were served at each meal definitely didn't hurt either.

We were also welcomed by government officials including the governor of the Pak Xeng district where we would be working for the next two weeks. The district has a population of approximately 23,000 people and throughout the next four days we visited the villages of Ban Nongfadat, Ban Hadsam, Ban Hadphaod, and Ban Vannguen to set up health clinics for the people living in these areas, where they are largely unable to afford to make the journey to hospital and don't have access to much needed regular health care. Each clinic was set up within school classrooms or meeting halls with only the medical equipment that we had brought with us, supported by our fundraising events and the donations we had collected. Our first clinic was by far the most challenging, as we were unsure of the most effective way to organise ourselves as a team and were unfamiliar with managing such a large patient load and working in collaboration with the translators and Laos health care workers. The lack of health care resources that we were accustomed to also presented challenges at times but we learned to adapt to our environment with the help of our supervisors.

As the week progressed, we refined our technique, became more familiar with the process and worked more efficiently as a team. At times it was overwhelming to be seeing such a large number of patients, in the sweltering heat, with such limited resources, but for every down moment there was an equally uplifting one, such as running health education sessions with the kids on how to wash their hands, or helping even temporarily relieve a patient of a health condition that they'd been living with for many years. We slowly adapted to the heat and the squat toilets and settled in to the rhythm of life in a Laos village. We relaxed after clinics with glorious swims in the river, set to the backdrop of the stunningly green mountains surrounding us on all sides. At the end of the first week we were exhausted and ready for a proper shower in Luang Prabang, but we were also proud of our accomplishments and how much progress we had made.

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