by Elizabeth Shoaf
RN, MSN, CNOR, CSSM, Senior Consultant, Clinical Advisory Solutions

Nurses are often said to be at the heart of health care and recently, five other nurses and I went on a medical mission trip to Malawi, which is known as the “The Warm Heart of Africa.” It took five flights and 70 hours to travel the 8,000 miles from my home in North Carolina to reach Malawi. Once we arrived, it was then a two-hour van ride to reach our final destination for our week-long mission. Now that I’m back in the States and looking back on the trip, my heart is full from my experience on the medical mission. 

The purpose of the mission trip was to deliver health care and support Mcheneke, a rural and impoverished village in Malawi. We held two clinic days to address the needs of those living in and around the village. The clinic was set up in a church building; a single room with furniture brought in from the villagers’ homes. We also visited with families, widows and orphans in need of care. We addressed a wide range of health care issues—everything from headaches to malaria—serving almost 1,000 people over the course of the week.

In addition to the direct medical care, we offered education by providing basic health care classes for the local community volunteers so they can better care for the villagers (their neighbors), who they visit on a regular basis. We also offered classes to teenage girls about female health with education on safety, abstinence and HIV prevention. There was also a class for expectant mothers with education on pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum/infant care. They received a physical assessment that included a fetal doppler reading, as well as supplies they will need for their baby.

Our last day in the village was spent with the local volunteers and the children. The children in these villages don’t often have the opportunity to play because household obligations are placed on them at a very young age. We spent time jumping rope, playing ball, blowing bubbles and just running around letting them be kids. Every child also received a new outfit of clothing and we handed out food parcels to families.

Thinking back on the experience of delivering care in a makeshift clinic in Africa compared to care in America, it’s easy to see the differences. However, there were three areas that were common: communication, collaboration and education. Efforts to foster communication among the team were planned into our days in order to achieve a shared-mental model for the required tasks. Collaboration was a large part of the success of our clinic days – both among our team as well as with the four Malawi nurses who joined us in our efforts to provide care to the villagers. Given the importance of health education, we allotted an entire day for educating the volunteers within the service center and community to maximize the benefits of the care we provided well after we departed.

My time in the Mcheneke village felt short, but we were blessed to provide three things: health care, education and compassion to people in need – exactly what we provide our patients in America! I had always wanted to participate in a medical mission and also to travel to Africa. I was very fortunate to be able to pair them together.

For health care professionals, medical mission trips are similar to professional conferences – a way to recharge, connect at a deeper level with peers, and gain insights that can be taken back to the workplace and woven into your professional life. Where they offer more to providers is through enhancing compassion, strengthening communication skills, leveraging teamwork in less-than-ideal conditions and reinforcing the need for education.

The next time you feel you need to recharge as a health care professional, consider a medical mission trip. It will change you forever!

About the author. Elizabeth Shoaf has more than 13 years of experience in the health care industry, providing expertise around quality improvement initiatives, project management and staff development. Among her key achievements and accomplishments, Shoaf was one of the first in the world to earn the certified surgical services manager (CSSM) certification, she was recognized as a “Great 100 Nurse” by her North Carolina nurse peers, and she is a four-time published author in the AORN Journal. Prior to joining Vizient, Shoaf spent 10 years at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, most recently as perioperative clinical educator and quality and resource manager. In this role, she directed 18 training programs; introducing more than 200 new RNs to the intraoperative setting. She was a pioneer of the patient safety program, WakeWings, which changed the culture at Wake Forest and drove sentinel events to zero.

Published: August 20, 2018