On a mission of health, hope and healing

The rain pours and it is pitch black. The roads are loosely assembled stones that are dangerous even in bright, dry daylight. Walking through the night in sandals or flip-flops, carrying heavy medical equipment and supplies, to find a house without any address might sound completely insane … but this is exactly what four staff members from the Grey Nuns Community Hospital did one February night in Rwanda. 

(Top row, from left) Grey Nuns staff members Wendy Sumner, Mark Lansing, Chris Jacknisky and Cheryl Muth pose with Jane (centre) and her newborn daughter Deborah, alongside Jocelyn Jelsma, who operates the clinic in Kigali, Rwanda, and a Rwandan midwife.

This situation also isn’t as uncommon as it sounds; many healthcare workers are using their limited time away from work to help those in need. But why?

“It’s very fulfilling to be able to use your talents and passions in another country that is struggling with needs and adequate services,” says Wendy, a Registered Nurse working in the Intensive Care unit and Early Pregnancy Loss Clinic. 

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been on trips that have been as fulfilling as the mission trips I’ve done. You come back exhausted, but emotionally you come back filled up.”

“There’s something about helping someone in a different context,” adds Cheryl, a Registered Nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit. Cheryl organized the Rwanda trip and has been there on several occasions. “It’s different from helping here. You go thinking that you’re going to help, but you come away and realize you’ve learned a lot about yourself too.”

There’s also the question of what kind of impact can be had on a community in such a short time. But Chris, a Clinical Nurse Educator, believes the knowledge they left with workers will have a lasting effect.

Clinical Nurse Educator Chris Jacknisky demonstrates neonatal resuscitation practice to clinic staff.

“The one big thing that we did was to go to one of the hospitals there. They actually do about 6,000 deliveries a year, much like the Grey Nuns. It was the absolute basics we were teaching, like neonatal resuscitation and drying a baby, but we were able to have impact on their system.” 

It may sound small, but the impact is real. According to United Nations statistics, birth asphyxia—a lack of oxygen after being born—and birth trauma is the leading cause in neonatal death in Rwanda. Teaching proper resuscitation skills helps directly address this problem. 

Wendy also worked with a counselling agency in Rwanda, finishing a course in cross-cultural counselling and completing her master's certificate in applied counselling.

Medical missions like these are trips organized specifically to help communities in developing or impoverished areas gain access to trained medical staff and equipment. Healthcare staff volunteer their time and skills, and either co-ordinate trips in small groups like Cheryl’s or connect to organizations that have insight and access to communities that need assistance. 

Dr. Dorothy Hardy is the Department Head of Anesthesia at the Misericordia Community Hospital, and she has been on more than 10 missions over 20-plus years. 

"It comes around to the altruism of people,” she says. “I think in the end you get more out of it than you put into it. It’s a lot of work to organize and pack everything to take down there that needs to go, but the gratitude is enormous.”

Altruism is a common theme in mission work, and especially in medicine: a selfless concern for others, alongside respect, compassion and social justice.

“You see these really tangible things; we took someone who could barely move, barely walk, and gave them their life back,” Dorothy says. “For all the negative you can conjure up about only being there a short amount of time, you’re really profoundly affecting that one person’s life.” 

You don’t need medical training to become involved in this kind of work. There are both religious and secular organizations that can help match your skills and abilities to a project or community in need.

If you are interested in becoming part of a mission trip, check out Projects Abroad for more information on participating. If you have medical training, EMAS Canada is another great resource for planning or joining short-term medical mission trips and healthcare training.

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