Saturday, 5 December 2015

Falling in love with Laos

PROJECT: Nursing
WRITTEN BY: Rosie Waldron

We arrived in Luang Prabang after a long flight, touching down on an airstrip bordered by lush mountains and greeted by the smiling faces of our interpreters whom we would work closely with over the coming weeks. After a walking tour of the gold clad Wat Xieng Thong temples and going up Mount Phousi to watch the sunset over the city and back down into the stretching night markets, we already had an idea that this was going to be special.

The next day after visiting the Army Hospital we set off, all of us excited to be finally starting what we had come out here to do. A two and a half hour dusty tuk tuk ride up into misty mountains following the Seung River deeper into rural Laos. We were greeted into the little village of Ban Napho by beaming villagers, sweet bouquets of handpicked flowers and a speech by the chief of the village.

First day of clinic was an eye opener! We were able to quickly organise ourselves into the different stations which consisted of reception, height and weight, observations, treatment/diagnoses and dispensary/pharmacy. We also realised there was a lot of wound care that needed to be done and included a wound dressing table in our set up. As part of the clinic we also delivered health promotion sessions which we all had a lot of fun with and as we were seeing a lot of school children. We decided to focus on dental and hand hygiene, following each session we gave out stickers like there was no tomorrow! Some of the groups were quite large – at one point 160 small children – but they all joined hands, sat in a circle, sang, clapped and were all completely delightful to teach.

In the following days we visited 7 different villages to deliver healthcare and each night at our little handover it became apparent that the most common things people were coming in for were issues such as back and muscular pain, coughs and irritated eyes, urinary problems, wounds and headaches. It also became apparent that many people did not drink enough fluids, with most only drinking two or three glasses a day whilst working hard in the heat and humidity. We saw many people come through the clinics, not just the young but also the elderly who were extremely grateful for the glasses we brought with us, one man trying a pair on exclaimed happily that he could properly see once again but (with a twinkle in his eye) he added that, for some reason, he still could not read English! That was one of the things we all really noticed about the Laos people, they were always ready for a laugh, always ready to smile and to wave, to welcome and to give. Although our days were filled with the clinics, it wasn’t all work.

Whilst we were in Laos they had a festival called Lhai Heua Fai that means “floating boats of light downstream” or “the festival of lights” in which they give offerings to the river mother or sea serpent. In Luang Prabang they made huge paper boats that they would set alight and send down the river. This would have been an incredible site, but we were in our village at the time and had the opportunity to make our own buoyant offerings out of banana leaves, marigolds and fragrant frangipanis. We took these to the neighbouring village, were blessed by the monks and set them on their way lit by candles under the full moon along with the people of the village. During our stay we were also treated to beautiful traditional dances by the village girls and taught how swirl our hands as they do – we haven’t quite got that down! In the afternoons we swam in the refreshing jade coloured Seuang river to wash the dust and day off.

There were times that we found nursing in this setting challenging. But with our fundraising and personal donations we were able to send those who needed it to hospital for treatment, and were able to buy a large stock of medication to administer during our time here and to donate at the end of our stay. Although it could be challenging at times we all agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. At our farewell ceremony the villagers took turns wrapping white threads around our wrists chanting prayers and blessings for our lives, there were tears from us and lots of smiles as we said goodbye to the people who had so whole heartedly welcomed us into their homes and into their community.

It was an incredible experience, working as an effective, cohesive team, putting our nursing skills to good use and having fun in amongst it all and although we were only there for a short time, we treated over 666 people, taught health promotion to almost 900 and felt very proud of what we were able to do.

We felt blessed to have taken part in something so fulfilling and all of us agreed when at our farewell the chief of the village said (in Lao), “Even though your bodies leave here, may your heart stay always in Laos.”

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