A Whole Different World

After a very quick and dirty review of the Spanish language during a two week January course, I took a little break from the cold of Baltimore and hopped a plane around the world to Laos (To save you from pulling up Google Maps, it’s the country in between Vietnam and Thailand…epitome of Southeast Asia). The trip was intended to be just a personal vacation to visit my boyfriend who is working overseas, but with two weeks to explore I knew I had to try to get some volunteer or shadowing time in a hospital over there! Fortunately for me, one of his coworkers is married to a nurse from Alabama. She and I bonded immediately over our significant others lack of understanding of the nursing profession, and she invited me to come to the hospital in Vientiane with her and help out with a volunteer group.

I really did not know what to expect. The city itself is very third world feeling, with dirt roads, tuks tuks buzzing around, people on the side of the road selling veggies out of their carts, and stray dogs on every corner. I half expected the hospital to be open air with straw mats on the ground as beds. So it was a pleasant surprise when we arrived to a large building with walls and windows! There was however the random chicken running around outside the entrance, and cats in the stairwells. I actually found out later that day that the cats are kept around to keep away the other pests…rats, mice etc.

Main mode of transport…the tuk tuk!

We met up with the volunteer group that my friend works with, and began going around to every patient on the floor to hand out food, toiletries, and money for the week. The particular floor we were on was all patients that had just recovered from surgical removal of growths on their face or chest. Whether its the proximity to the equator, or poor nutrition, I do not know, but I was shocked at how many people there were on this floor, and the SIZE of the growths that had been removed from their faces. In fact, these patients were all so critical that they had been operated on by a special team of doctors from Holland. Evidently groups of physicians from Europe and Australia rotate through this hospital, perform many of the serious surgeries, and attempt to train the Lao doctors to deal with these types of cases. There were also many children on the unit that had been born with cleft palates and had an operation to begin to correct this deformity.

As we went around the unit I could not help but notice the many things that would make our professors here at Hopkins cringe. For starters, all the nurses wore flip flops around the unit, and before entering a room with patients would take off their shoes and enter barefoot. This is obviously culture related, as all the Lao people take off their shoes before entering someone’s home, but all I could imagine was picking up a disease through an open wound on the foot. Also, throughout the entire unit I only saw ONE sink…without soap….the hand washing patrol would have a heart attack if they inspected this hospital.

There are definitely no Danskos in this hospital…
The one and only handwashing station

Before we left for the day, the nurses told us that there would be a litte celebration that some of the patients would be putting on to thank the doctors from Holland for their service. We were then entertained by dancing and signing from many of the children, as well as a dragon dance up and down the halls of the hospital! So much fun to watch these kids that had been in the hospital for serious complications recover and come out to put on something like this! The kid on the drums had some serious rhythm I might add….

Dragon dance celebration. Notice the very traditional nurse outfit

Overall, this was a wonderful experience and has strengthened my desire to go abroad and work as a nurse at some point in my life. I feel like there is a huge knowledge gap in some of these countries that nurses trained in the states could help bridge with education on safety, sanitation, and patient care.

Of course I also had to have some fun and do the SE Asia things…like ride an elephant, get knee deep in a rice patty, and jump off a waterfall. So, we spent a weekend in Luang Prabang, which is further north on the Mekong River, and did just about every touristy thing you could do. See pics below 🙂

Betty the elephant
up close and personal with the rice experience
Some classic Lao Fondu
Kuang Si Waterfalls

Now back to the real world and swing of things at Hopkins. The 17 month group started back to class on the 4th, and we are in Psych and Adult Health clinicals this semester. I look forward to a huge learning curve in psych, and the many approaching opportunities such as overseas transitions and public health rotations!

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