Life at Mulago Hospital, in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, is like no other experience, and for a select group of 20 ACU nursing, midwifery and public health students it has had a lasting impact on their lives.
“It makes me really excited when I look back on the things we did, the things we were lucky enough to see, and to be so warmly welcomed. To walk into a hospital where the patients felt so genuinely lucky that we were there to help them was rewarding and humbling.
“We were given the chance to put into practise the things we have learnt – it’s very liberating to be able to learn a skill and take it to somewhere to help someone who needs it most.”
These are the reflections of Bachelor of Nursing student Aimee Burns, looking back on her time as part of a two-week International Study Experience of east African country Uganda as part of the International Community Engagement Experience program.
For the first time the Faculty of Health Sciences facilitated a select group of 20 nursing, midwifery and public health students to embark on a life-affirming experience at Mulago Hospital in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, undertaking two weeks of clinical practise in one of the most under-resourced regions on the planet.
“Nothing can prepare you for the reality of life in Uganda and working at Mulago Hospital – you have to experience it for yourself,” ACU midwifery lecturer and program co-coordinator Annette Garvey said.
“This environment is the ultimate test, challenging both their ability in a clinical and intellectual sense to provide the best possible care in a high stress environment.”
Ms Garvey knew this experience was going to test the resolve of all involved, walking into an environment that can only be truly comprehended by having lived the experience. Along with fellow program coordinator Dr Jean Mukasa, they turned this dream of an “impactful study experience” into a reality.
“We wanted for the study experience to be transformative for the students involved. We wanted them to not only gain valuable knowledge and practical experience in a challenging and diverse healthcare setting, but also have a greater understanding of the importance of providing care that encompasses dignity, respect and value of each individual, and how this makes a difference,” Ms Garvey said.
“Mulago, being the largest hospital in Uganda, saw the students exposed to living and working with marginalised and disadvantaged people and communities, which presented as big a test of their skills, knowledge, and ability to cope under pressure as any environment they will be exposed to during their studies and professional career.”
Life at Mulago Hospital was like nothing these students had ever experienced.
“We were definitely in shock. Walking through the hospital was very different to walking through an Australian hospital. It was certainly difficult to take in, in the beginning,” Aimee said.
“There were patients in all the beds and lying on the floor, the smells, the hygiene standards, the whole environment, it was a lot to take it in because we would never see anything like that at home.”
These sentiments were shared by Bachelor of Midwifery student Penny McIntyre looking back on first impressions of life on the wards of Mulago Hospital.
“Walking into the wards it was absolutely archaic – there were beds, but no linen, no proper facilities with only one hole in the ground for hundreds of women to use as a toilet, the lack of staff – that’s what really struck me,” Penny said.
Exposure to this environment and working in trying conditions had a lasting impact on the students, with Penny’s reflections encapsulating the very essence of what Ms Garvey and Dr Mukasa hoped to achieve in Uganda.
“It’s about human interaction. Having that fundamental kindness, compassion and respect no matter if you’re working at Mulago Hospital or Freemasons Hospital in Melbourne,” Penny said.
“To look at a woman, listen to a woman, and to smile and empathise with her, and show her some kindness – that resonates with me and that’s how I will practise. Every pregnant woman, every new mother deserves that care and to feel that way.”
The program was the brainchild of Faculty of Health Sciences Executive Dean Professor Michelle Campbell, who visited Makerere University and Mulago Hospital last year on the recommendation of nursing lecturer Dr Mukasa, who hails from Malawi and has worked extensively in Uganda.
Together, with the support of the Faculty of Health Sciences, they created a unique program that offered students a challenging opportunity to gain clinical practise and immerse themselves in a rich and vibrant culture, while contributing to a community in need of their support and expertise.
The change witnessed in each student in these two short weeks was not lost on Ms Garvey.
“You can see the change in each student who participated, they have returned with a distinctly different outlook on the way they approach their profession and awareness of the challenges facing people seeking care in the developing world,” Ms Garvey said.
“We were very fortunate to have an exceptional cohort of students, who showed a willingness to embrace their surrounds and ensured the experience was both educational and memorable.”
This change has come in the form of empowerment for many of the students as complete and near completion of their undergraduate degrees.
“I’ve got a lot more confidence and I feel I’m now able to cope with high-pressure situations very easily as far as I don’t panic because I know, compared to where I’ve been, there is so much support and resources available,” Penny said.