From American Red Cross founder nurse Clara Barton to nurses Florence Nightingale and Dorothea Dix – all famous for their healthcare reforms and wartime nursing contributions, nurses across history have stepped up to the plate to volunteer in times of need. Caring and service are essential aspects of the nursing profession, and international volunteering is one of the many ways today’s nurses carry on that legacy.
Dr. Julia Canipe (RN, DNP, CNE), is one such nurse with a passion for international volunteering. Born in the country of Belarus and now living in the United States, Canipe spent two weeks in her home city of Minsk as a volunteer with the International Children’s Heart Foundation. Together, with an international group of healthcare providers, Canipe helped to complete 33 successful open heart surgeries for children born with congenital heart defects. The experience was an unforgettable one, and, now, Canipe hopes to inspire other nurses to follow in her footsteps as global volunteers.
Why Nurses Volunteer (And What Holds Them Back)
Volunteering abroad allows nurses like Canipe to contribute to the global need for quality care and respond to what the American Nurses Association describes as “disparities and inequities in health care across the globe.” Beyond providing direct care that can change patients’ lives, volunteers can offer much needed education and medical supplies to benefit the communities they visit.
Volunteering has upsides for nurses themselves as well. The experience can ignite personal and professional growth, as nurses push beyond their comfort zone, expand their skills and broaden their understanding of the world. So what’s preventing more nurses from getting involved?
For starters, volunteering requires a time and financial commitment, and both personal and professional responsibilities can be a roadblock. The timing is simply not always right to go abroad. Even when volunteering is feasible, an abundance of planning and discussions are necessary as well as the support of family, community and employers.
“Any travel volunteering experience will last at least a week especially out of the country,” explains Canipe, who is currently the RN to BSN Program Director at South University – West Palm Beach. At the time of her trip, she was working at a hospital in Maryland and was grateful to have the support of her unit and manager. “You have to take time off from your job, using vacation time or other time, sometimes without pay,” she says. “With so many healthcare organizations short staffed, taking time off can be difficult for nurses.”
Concerns about a foreign language, extreme poverty and unfamiliar local beliefs and governments can also cause hesitation. However, those who are able to overcome these fears and other barriers have the potential to make an incredible impact on the world. “We’re always so focused on what’s happening in our backyard, that it can be a very rewarding thing to realize that we can make a difference outside our own little corner of the universe,” she says. “There are so many people out there in need of skills that we as nurses have to offer.”
Making the Decision to Volunteer
International volunteering requires people to be dependable, empathetic and adaptable. As other nursing scenarios often do, volunteering can require endurance for long shifts, with some situations being both physically and emotionally demanding. In Belarus, for example, Canipe worked rotating shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off for two weeks straight as they performed surgeries and cared for the local children whose heart defects were a result of radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Likewise, one of Canipe’s colleagues at South University, Dr. Harrieth K. Gabone-Mwalupindi led a group of volunteers to Tanzania in 2019 to provide health education services. They too worked 12 hour shifts and, through community outreach, interacted with over 900 students. Essentially, when healthcare providers are on a volunteering trip, their goal is to maximize their impact and most of their waking time is spent hard at work.
Processes that are simple in America also can become much more complicated abroad. “You keep the knowledge, but you lose almost all the resources, technology and staff,” says Gabone-Mwalupindi. “Even with training you can’t use the American methods, because they won’t work. You have to understand the culture you’re working in.”
Additionally, volunteers must take special care to act ethically within the context of other cultures. In their Ethical Considerations for Local and Global Volunteerism position statement, the ANA promotes social responsibility and cultural humility by sharing guidelines for volunteers and trip planners as well as examining both the potential benefits and harms for volunteers and host communities.
Among their recommendations, the ANA emphasizes that nurses should respect the dignity, worth and unique attributes of patients while volunteering. This includes being sensitive to cultural values and practices as well as respecting others’ decision-making methods, even those based on “different beliefs and understandings of health, autonomy, privacy and confidentiality, and relationships.” While it’s natural to want to document these life-changing volunteering experiences, the ANA reiterates that nurses must maintain and protect their patients’ rights to privacy and confidentiality, exactly as they would in their home country.
“These guidelines bring attention to the fact that you can’t volunteer without considering the full scope and breadth of responsibilities and experiences you’re signing up for,” says Canipe. “You really have to reflect to see if it’s a good fit for you. Your motivation can’t be to have an adventure, for example, or convert people to your beliefs or way of thinking. Social justice and a desire to do good and provide care are much more appropriate motivations.”
How to Find and Prepare for a Volunteering Trip
Once a nurse decides to volunteer, the next step is finding the right organization. In addition to the information available online, a variety of publications feature stories of volunteer nurses. Reading about these experiences can help nurses understand what to expect and find organizations to work with. For any organization on their short list, nurses should check the organizational mission, values and vision to make sure it aligns with their goals and to ensure that the organization is legitimate and reliable.
Logistically, there’s also a lot to look into when selecting a trip. “What is the living environment? How long is the duration of the trip? What are the expectations of the healthcare provider?,” says Canipe, listing the essential questions to ask. “The organization may need providers to deliver direct hands-on care or they may be looking for healthcare coordinators or educators.”
After finding a trip aligned to their skills and interests, potential volunteers must complete an application to confirm the match. Once a volunteer is accepted, preparations can begin. Here again, finding stories of the organization’s past volunteers is a great way to learn what to expect. Another valuable action is reading about the politics, religion and societal norms of the local community or region, as this can help to reduce the culture shock experienced upon arrival. Learning common phrases and words in the native language will also make the experience easier and be appreciated by anyone interacting with the volunteer group. (For this reason, bilingual nurses can be a great asset to volunteer organizations and help groups to be more effective and efficient.)
Logistically, nurses should create a plan to ensure their own health while traveling, including any medications to bring or healthcare conditions to consider. Finding supplies on location may be difficult so preparing in advance is best. In addition, nurses will need to check CDC immunization suggestions and requirements pertinent to the host country. Other things to research include visas and other travel documents as well as potential trip insurance and any current Department of State travel warnings.
As for packing, most organizations provide a list of what volunteers should bring. Most likely, volunteers will be asked to fundraise for supplies as well. In Canipe’s case, the unit she worked with at the hospital generously donated $500 toward her trip. “You’ll need to raise awareness and get your community excited. Talk to your church, your employer, your friends. It’s a community effort,” advises Canipe. “Every organization will tell you what they need. It might be basic things like blankets, clothing, masks, gloves or even over-the-counter medications. In my case, I took a whole bag of surgical supplies on the trip.”
What Happens After Coming Home
Everyone’s time volunteering will be different, but in almost every case, the experience will have a profound effect on how they view the world.
“There’s an important reflection stage when you return from volunteering in another country. It is very humbling. You almost come back a different person,” says Canipe. “Everyone immediately wants to know how it was, but you may not have enough words to describe it right away.”
For most nurses, the adjustment is more than jet lag fatigue; there’s an emotional aspect as well. “It’s quite a lot. You go through the whole gamut of emotions,” reflects Canipe. “You make friends there and you leave them behind. You feel guilty coming back to the world of plenty when the disparities are so vast. It takes an emotional toll.”
Realistically, processing those emotions will take time. Eventually, talking about the trip can help, allowing nurses to reflect on the lives they have changed and the impact they can continue to have by inspiring other healthcare professionals to find their own ways of giving back.
“Volunteering internationally can be a challenge in many ways, but we are capable of more than we think,” says Canipe. “Often it’s the hardest work that means the most and makes the greatest difference.”
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