In June and July 2016, Marta –a 21 year-old nurse from Navarra, worked as a volunteer at St. Francis Xavier Hospital (Ghana) through the Benedict Menni Foundation.
What motivated you to volunteer?
I believe the main motivation of a volunteer must be helping their neighbour and doing their bit in this world; this couldn’t go on without good people who want to make the world a better place. When I was younger, I used to listen to my religion teacher talking about people who were going to the poorest countries to contribute with their best skills. It was then when I decided I wanted to become a volunteer – national and/or international, because I am also aware that in my own country (Spain), there are people who need others’ help and time to get out of a hole.
I wanted a spiritual change that would make me grow
My second motivation was to become a better person. I wanted an inner change, a spiritual change that would make me grow and look at humanity with the eyes of God. For this reason I chose to volunteer with a religious organisation. In Africa, the Sisters were my biggest support, my friends, my confidants, and my family. I will always be grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to meet them and to work in the hospital
What was your role while volunteering at St Francis Xavier Hospital?
In Assin Foso, I was the nurse in charge of the Neonatology section in the Maternity unit. I was helping during labours and looking after the new-borns until their discharge. It was a very rewarding job when you see babies getting on and surviving adversities such as asphyxia, premature birth, infection… But it is very painful when you realise that your efforts are in vain and that the little one, whom you nursed with effort and love, dies.
What were your expectations before you volunteered?
I must confess that some of my expectations were unrealistic. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to experience there but I wasn’t. You cannot be prepared for everything –neither the good or the bad that you will end up experiencing. I dreamt of saving lives, teaching and learning. But people die; there isn’t enough equipment; and bonding with the nursing and medical team is complicated at first.
I would have liked to help more, but I had to return to Spain at the time I became most helpful and the team had got to know me. Nevertheless, I am proud of my work and everything I learnt. I will never forget the two months I spent in Ghana.
Did you exceed them?
My realistic expectations were fulfilled, indeed. You can always help if you are intending to learn from others and put your prejudices aside. And that was what I wanted the most: to give a hand to anyone who needed it in the hospital. I’m sure I was useful at St. Francis Xavier Hospital. And patients and staff appreciated my presence to a greater or lesser degree. As long as you smile and have the desire to learn about other ways to treat the same condition, Ghanaians will receive you with joy.
Did you face any challenges?
I faced several challenges. On the one hand, the feeling of loneliness you experience when you find yourself in such a different place without your family and friends, because you need them more than ever. I had never been so long without them. I studied my degree in my hometown, at the University of Navarra, and never joined an Erasmus Programme (EU student exchange programme) , so I had no experience within another environment. Besides, in these places, you cannot go for a drink, or to the cinema, you just have your house and the hospital. If I had a tough day, I was sharing it with my colleague or the sisters. That’s why the bond between them and me grew so strong.
On the other hand, there is the culture. Manners and the way of thinking are very different from my own. Sometimes you find people who reject white man, and that hurts because you go there to help. When you see that you are being ignored; people not answering your questions or not allowing you to work or touch anything, you feel rejected and have to reconsider the situation.
I met very nice Ghanaians that made my stay better and helped me.
Thank God, one cannot generalise, everyone is different, and I met very nice Ghanaians that made my stay better and helped me. I wanted to know the role of the neonatology nurse and thanks to them I could participate as such. I did premature and new-born care and even performed cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) alone. I was really scared at first because I wanted the patient to survive, I had just graduated and had never performed CPR before. However, not only didn’t I freeze, but started to work as quickly and effectively as possible.
Finally, death is the last challenge I had to face. The way death is handled is quite different. There, death and disease are common and they try to fight them with half of the resources we have in Spain, England, France, etc.
As a Christian, there were times when the only thing I could do was praying to God for them.
Some people believe that a mother cannot cry if her new-born dies when he is less than eight days old because he isn’t human yet. Sometimes, babies are choked to death if they are born mentally or physically impaired. It is difficult to understand, but you try to, even though you don’t think that’s right. As a Christian, there were times when the only thing I could do was praying to God for the people, and I still do.
What are the highlights of this experience?
I’d say it’s learning, not only at a practical level, but as a person, there is something that awakes inside of you and moves you. You don’t know exactly what changes within you, but you realise you will never be the same again. You don’t want essential values such as goodness, wisdom, empathy to stop growing in you and certain life experiences allow them to grow even more.
Would you volunteer again?
I will actually try to volunteer again, either in Ghana or somewhere else; to continue working to improve the well-being of those who suffer; and to learn from them. I hope I can continue to work as a volunteer, either abroad or in my country. Volunteering at home can also be carried out in many ways: in a hospital with patients; in a nursing home with the elderly; teaching people with few economic resources for free; in a psychiatric unit with those who feel lonely; in the church with Good News… or even in your own family. You can always volunteer, and it should be mandatory to spend a bit of our time with the sole purpose of helping others.