Developing mental health

Tue, Jan 20 2015

Volunteering in Tanzania starts psychiatric nursing student on the road to giving back

When Sanam Amiri walked through the doors of the psychiatric ward of the Muhimbili Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital city, she couldn’t believe her eyes.

“I knew I wanted to volunteer and experience health care in different countries, but at first it was shocking to see how patients were treated,” says the psychiatric nursing student who was one of 35 students from around the world to volunteer in Tanzania, but the only one to do so on the psychiatric unit.

Making a difference two weeks at a time

Having applied to go overseas mere months into her program, Sanam knew she wanted to give back and to start doing so early. What she didn’t know was how much she had to offer. It turns out it was far more than she ever imagined.

“Even in the first year of our program, we are taught to have such respect for patients, to protect their dignity and to find ways to handle situations without using chemical or physical restraints,” says Sanam. “It was really hard to see the conditions on the psychiatric unit at Muhimbili Hospital—a long room where patients were all physically restrained to their beds and separated from the nurses’ station by metal bars. I was so upset at first that it was hard to even walk into the unit, but it motivated me to work harder,” says Sanam.

So she set out to spend her two weeks at the hospital making a difference for the patients and the other nurses in any way she could.

“I didn’t want to make the other nurses feel uncomfortable and I never wanted to step on anyone’s toes,” says Sanam. “I was only 19 years old and I realized that could make things even harder, so I tried my best to be empathetic and to phrase things carefully,” she says.

She says that within a few days she was sharing some of the basics she had learned in the Psychiatric Nursing program—that working with a patient who has mental health issues is different than working with patients who have other medical issues, how to speak to patients with respect and even proper hand hygiene.

Reserving judgment

“It would have been easy to judge because the situation is so different, but that’s the last thing we should be doing as psychiatric nursing students,” says Sanam. “All the nurses I met at the hospital in Dar es Salaam had such good intentions. When we offered patient education seminars for the nurses, they were so appreciative and talkative—they wanted to get as much information as they could.”

Sanam says she still gets emails from the nurses in Tanzania asking simple questions about the unit.

“They truly want to make a difference and it’s really nice to see that,” says Sanam, adding that experience emphasized what she already knew—that she’s lucky to call Canada home.

Planning a return trip to Tanzania

Sanam is already planning her next trip to Tanzania and is hoping to convince some of her fellow students to join her.

“I’ve seen that you can make a difference no matter what program or year you are in and I would love to have other people in the program join me next summer in Tanzania,” she says. “Now that I’ve got my feet wet and know what resources to bring with me, I feel like I could do much more.”

And after Tanzania? “I still have lots of work to do—I want to get my masters and travel to other places in the world to volunteer for longer periods of time. Working internationally is something I am really interested in. This is just the beginning for me.”

MacEwan University goes global

Watch for more stories about students and faculty with international connections during Global Awareness Week, February 2 to 6.

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