Heather S., RN

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya with the organization ER Abroad. When the plane landed in Nairobi, a wave of gratitude washed over me as I realized that this would be the fourth time I had been to Africa for the purpose of medical and humanitarian mission work. Africa is what my heart and soul cries out for. The desperate, the underprivileged of Africa that are far too often overlooked are at the center of why I decided upon the nursing profession to begin with. It is always difficult for me to put into words the sights, smells, and experiences for trips like these. It is difficult to truly put into perspective how Africa has taken my heart captive. The warm smiles, the hospitality of the people, and the unique cultures are forever sketched into my memory. However, the images of starving and orphaned children, the smell of sewage running through the dirt-laden streets, and the millions of people without clean water, food, and basic health care are forever burned into my mind and heart. The team I was with had the opportunity to work within the city of Nakuru, approximately 3 hours north west of Kenya’s capitol, Nairobi.

The first thing many people tend to notice when they leave the airport is how differently people drive on this side of the world.  Road rules do not tend to apply here and I find myself often gripping at any stationary part of the vehicle I am riding in.  The way in which everyone weaves in and out of traffic on roads with no marked lanes is truly a form of art.  Once everyone becomes more accustomed to the driving, they begin to notice other things such as the scenery, the people, and the differences in culture.  The country of Kenya is truly beautiful. On the drive from Nairobi to Nakuru we passed by the Great Rift Valley, encountered Zebra crossings, and took in the beautiful green countryside.  The people of Kenya are equally as beautiful if not more so than the scenery. I am often overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality.  Their tightly woven communities are incomparable to the individualistic society I have grown accustomed to.  As we continue forward on our drive to Nakuru, I am reminded that more than forty tribes are present in Kenya, each with their own unique culture.  A keen observer can pick out members of these different tribes by identifying their different styles of dress or ways of living. When passing by a group of Maasai, our group is quick to notice their vibrant red colors and nomadic way of life.  The various cultures among the tribes of Kenya are beautiful, intriguing, and educational to say the least.

Nakuru has a population of roughly 300,000 persons making it the fourth largest urban center in Kenya.  In developing countries such as Kenya, urban populations are quickly growing and giving rise to what is commonly known as slum dwellings.  These slums are typically overcrowded shack dwellings which often lack sanitation, access to clean water, basic health care, and other necessities.  The Kaptembwa slum of Nakuru is home to approximately 140,000 of Nakuru’s inhabitants. In just one day our group of two physicians and five nurses were able to join three Kenyan physicians and two Kenyan nurses to treat and see over 400 patients!!  Many of these patients were the same people who call Kaptembwa their home.  From basic treatments such as antibiotics for infected wounds to diagnosing a rare skin disorder, we were able to provide medical care for people who would otherwise have no access to it. People waited in line for hours without complaint in order to see a nurse and a doctor.  Every patient we saw greeted us with a smile and sincerely thanked us as they were sent away with sometimes even the most basic medical care.

One particular case that sticks out in my mind was that of a six month old little girl with a fever of 104 degrees who appeared listless and had been suffering symptoms of malaria for several days. We were able to immediately administer Tylenol to reduce her fever and provide medications to treat the malaria. We kept her at our medical camp for the majority of the morning to assure that her fever began to decrease and she was able to tolerate fluids.  I wonder now about this little girl and others we saw during this day.  Would they have found medical treatment elsewhere if we had not been there or would their conditions have worsened due to lack of access to something as simple as Tylenol for a fever? Albert Einstein once said that “only a life lived for others is a life worth living.” I want my life to be about more than just myself. I want my life to be lived for those children and families in need of the many things that we daily take for granted.

Although it is unfortunate that the city did not allow us more days for medical camps, the rest of our time was well spent tending to other needs of equal importance.  We had the opportunity to visit children in several of the orphanages in Nakuru to bring food, supplies, and love to the parentless.  UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.  We were able to touch the lives of several of these.  They absolutely light up when we enter the room and it is easy to see that having visitors is something they hardly take for granted.  To be able to hug these children and bring a smile to their face is worth more than rubies. One can tell that time and experience has quickly aged these children and made them tough skinned.  Yet none of them look bitter or hopeless.  None of them look sad.  Instead I see a room full of radiant, hopeful faces of the next generation who will hopefully rise up to make a difference in their country one day.

One of the most sobering experiences of our time in Nakuru was our walk through the Kaptembwa slum. Our group, along with our Kenyan liaisons, set out into the slums to locate the neediest families for our food drive we would have later in the week. I truly believe that one cannot completely understand poverty until they have walked among the impoverished.  It is impossible to put into words the smell of the sewage that permeates the air, the images of the starving, and the piles of garbage lining the dirt roadways.  Despite these harsh living conditions though, the people appear happy.  They may not have access to clean water, proper sanitation, or enough food on the table for dinner but they have one another.  In a culture that values relationship above all else, this is enough to keep them pressing on from day to day.  I learn so much from these people I have come to serve.  To identify the neediest among the neediest proves to be one of the most difficult tasks of the week. I want to provide enough for all 140,000 people but our food supplies will only allow us to hand out so many tickets for the day.  We manage to hand out all of our tickets by the end of the day and leave having made some new friends whose faces I shall never forget.

The needs of this world are great and it is time for us all to rise up and meet them.  If everyone would reach out a helping hand to another we would all be the better for it.  It is time we all open our eyes to a world in need.  It is time for us to stop talking about what needs to be done and get up to do it. I feel so blessed that I have had multiple opportunities to serve in Africa in the area of humanitarian nursing.  I would never have had the opportunity to do so though if it was not for supporters such as One Nurse at a Time who made my journey possible.  I have no words for how grateful I am to all my supporters.  They have made it possible to do what I do. I have big dreams for my future in nursing.  Eventually I want to take my nursing career to Africa full time as a humanitarian nurse and human rights activist.  Until that day I’ll continue to work hard, continue my education, and take every opportunity to serve the underserved.