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Reflecting on my volunteer placement in Ethiopia

Stephanie Galvin volunteered as a Paediatric Nurse with VSO Ireland in Jinka hospital, Ethiopia. While on placement, Stephanie shared her skills and knowledge with staff in the paediatrics department and enhanced the routine care and management of neonates. In this blog post, Steph describes what volunteering with VSO meant for her.


Alone but never alone

I arrived alone to Jinka, a remote town in South Western Ethiopia, in May 2015. It was the beginning of the most wonderful adventure of my life with VSO Ireland. Without doubt I was met with a fair amount of scepticism at first. But every day walking from my home to Jinka hospital I remembered what VSO had thought me - listen and build trust. 

I spent a lot of my initial time in Jinka hospital assessing the environment, talking to the nurses, and trying my best to learn local customs and the main language Amharic - this became a huge advantage in the work. Once people got to know me and I could communicate better I was truly made feel at home. My spare time was spent with local people either at a coffee ceremony, eating Injera, celebrating one of the many Orthodox festivals or simply just trying to keep up at the local market with the 16 beautiful ethnic groups. I went to Ethiopia alone but I was never alone. I was one of very few Westerners in the town but I do not have enough words to describe how well I was treated by the local people. Reflecting on this experience, I really believe if we could show just a fraction of the same warmth, love and compassion for those who move into our communities in Ireland, we would all benefit in great ways.

Amazing results in neonatal units

Although my initial time at Jinka hospital involved observation, it was not always possible to stand back. Due to the nature of the environment, I found I often had to step in, especially in resuscitation situations. I was based in the paediatric ward and was given the task of helping to develop a neonatal unit dedicated to looking after the most vulnerable of children - infants in the first 28 days of life. Ethiopia has made huge progress with the Sustainable Development Goals, including reducing death rates in under five year olds. However, neonatal mortality rates are still unacceptably high at 28 per 1000 live births (this compares to 2 per 1000 in Ireland). The neonatal unit, which is now up and running as a result of VSO input, is one of 16 units established in Ethiopia over the past five years. Statistics have shown that these units have reduced neonatal mortality rates by up to 40%.

Sharing skills to bring about change

In saying this, the challenges to overcome are still huge - infants are dying from absolutely curable diseases such as respiratory infections and sepsis, and from poor delivery and resuscitation practices. My role involved working with the nurses and midwives every day to help them improve all aspects of care, including infection control practices, monitoring, reporting, while also introducing up-to-date policies and protocols.

Remarkably, the doctors working in the hospital told me they had never been shown how to resuscitate a baby, child or adult. Therefore, while working alongside staff to improve practice, I was also in the position to hold several resuscitation training days for the nurses, doctors and other health workers and to carry out workshops on the management of the critically ill child. These are practical skills that we use every day in the hospital that I work in in Dublin, however practical skills are not something that can be easily learned from a book, which is sadly the way most health care professions learn in Ethiopia. Within weeks of the resuscitation training, many of the doctors reported back that babies had been successfully resuscitated in the delivery room, babies whom they had previously believed there was no hope for. This is why VSO works - it enables the volunteer to step back and allow local health workers to manage situations. I also observed a nurse training a junior nurse in skills I had taught! So the effect of VSO volunteers is far reaching - it’s all about sharing skills.

A brighter future

The neonatal unit is fully established now - it has running water, electricity, a mothers room and a room for the sickest of babies to be looked after in a more intense way. I worked very closely with the hospital CEO and the director of nursing to achieve this. We also received a huge donation of over €7,000 from the people of Moate, Westmeath and Offaly and a grant from Irish Aid, which allowed us to fit the unit out with essential lifesaving equipment such as oxygen concentrators, infant warmers, and phototherapy. There was huge excitement in Jinka when all equipment arrived from Addis Ababa after a two day journey in a truck! Luckily I was there in the position to educate the nurses how to use, clean and maintain the equipment. VSO in Addis Ababa will also continue to support the unit into the future.

I once heard a long serving development worker in Ethiopia describe VSO volunteers as the catalyst to change. I think this is true in my experience. My time in Ethiopia involved me learning a lot more than I could have ever given. But I believe my presence allowed for change to begin, change that I know the local people will bring forward into the future. If you are a doctor, nurse, teacher or any other profession, young, retired or otherwise you can get in contact with VSO Ireland for opportunities to share skills in developing counties. 

Interested in volunteering with VSO Ireland?

We're always on the lookout for health professionals like Steph to support sustainable change overseas. Please see our Vacancies page for a list of current opportunities. You can also support VSO by donating what you can this Christmas and helping us save more babies' lives in communities like Jinka.

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