Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lessons in volunteering

The best advice I got from Dr. Rob Fuller and Matthew Howell: “When you volunteer in a disaster you feel like you have to work, work, work, and you think you need to do it all because no one can do it as good as you will…but you need to remember you are not here forever; you are here for a short period of time. When you accomplish your mission it is your responsibility to start training the next group of volunteers or better yet start training the Haitian nurses. This is their hospital, and they will ultimately be the ones working here. Be sensitive to their culture and training and do your best. You want to go back home with the feeling of accomplishment and knowing you did everything within your resources to continue what you started.”

I would like to pass this along to my nursing colleagues…you are not “Superman.” You need to remember to keep hydrated and take care of yourself before you are able to take care of anybody else. It was very hard for me to remember to drink, much less eat. I had “travel diarrhea,” so if you’re going to Haiti, ask your primary care practitioner about taking Cipro for prophylaxis. I had to receive I.V. fluids once during the stay so if you feel dehydrated, have someone start an I.V. It won’t hurt, especially if you know you haven’t hydrated adequately.

Some suggestions as to what to take if you are going to volunteer: dermabond to cover scratches, mosquito repellant, electrolyte drops to add to the water, Gatorade powder in individual packages (you can just suck on it if you can), protein bars, and Imodium. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

In Haiti, I had to make the most difficult decisions in my nursing career. I would have never thought I would be placed in a situation where my decision was the “last call” on who was treated and what I had to “let go” because of limited resources, lack of medical professionals, and over-abundance of wounded people. I kept telling myself, “Gaby you can not save the world. You can only do what you are able to do. Stay focused!”

I had to keep in mind age, co-morbidity history, presence of HIV, severity of injury, and date of seeking treatment when making decisions. I wanted to treat everyone, but I had to take into account that I couldn’t waste any time or resources, from medical volunteers to supplies. I couldn’t give family members false hope when I knew the outcome would be devastating.

As a nurse—and as a human being—all I wanted to do is take away their pain and suffering. The way they would look straight into my eyes sent chills up and down my spine as their eyes told their story. Even with a language barrier, I felt a bond I never thought I could have ever experienced. Many people were left without families, a place to live, jobless, starving, and were just begging to survive! It was the most heart-wrenching experience.

Not once did I ever fear for my life or feel unsafe. The Haitians were the most grateful human beings. Coming from the U.S. you see family members bring their loved ones to the hospital and expect you to give all the care from the time they are admitted to the time they are discharged. They don’t want to spend the time to bathe or toilet their family members and push the call light instead. In Haiti, we were never asked by the patient or family members to toilet or bathe them. Even when we offered, they would say no and thank us for just being there. We often just gave patients pain meds because not one complaint would come out of their mouths. I think in a culture like Haiti you are not used to complaining. People are content with what they do have.

Nurse Gabriela McAdoo
Photos by Margaret Aguirre

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