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Learning lessons from working overseas: India

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Last year I travelled to Himachal Pradesh in the north of India to work as a volunteer for eight weeks, to make a difference to people’s lives in a developing country and hopefully learn and improve my practice.

Last year I travelled to Himachal Pradesh in the north of India to work as a volunteer for eight weeks, to make a difference to people’s lives in a developing country and hopefully learn and improve my practice.

Voluntary work was something I had always wanted to do, but it is hard to find the ‘right’ time to do it. But last year I was granted a two-month period of unpaid leave and was able to make my dream a reality.

The project I went to work on was not full-time in healthcare. But during my visit I was able to organise a nutrition and health camp giving education and advice to pregnant women and new mothers.

I predominantly worked in a Day Care Centre (DCC) with young children teaching English, and then visited families in the community during the afternoon.

Arriving in Delhi was a culture shock, as I felt overwhelmed by the heat, the smog and the stench. Throughout my stay at times I saw the most appalling poverty, with people crowded into homes fashioned from wood, paper, mud and corrugated.

There were people begging in the street among the animals, cars and rubbish, emaciated or disabled victims of life were pleading for food and money. The children in the DCC looked dirty and I felt I had achieved something by teaching them to wash their hands before eating. They would queue up to wash their hands and some would do it twice - it was like a game, though a very serious game.

I worked in TempleDCC at Bundla village. The children came from around the village, though this was dependent on the weather and very few came in the rain. Hindu religion played a major part in the culture and we would go to the temple in the morning and the children would play with a few basic toys.

Even though a teacher and helper were present, the teacher had a supervisory role and the helper would cook lunch, making their interaction with the children limited. If the volunteers did not go there was no education for the children. In the afternoon, the guide and I would do community work and visit the homes of the children.

I spent time working with a doctor visiting clinics, discussing healthcare practices, running a health and nutrition education camp and making a leaflet with simple basic nutrition advice, which I had converted into Hindi.

The healthcare workers I witnessed were working as effectively as they could with the limited resources available. Many of the clinics were run by healthcare associate workers, who had limited training.

In India there is a governmental and a private healthcare system. On one occasion a fellow volunteer became severely dehydrated after having diarrhoea and vomiting, and started having seizures.

We went to a governmental hospital where some beds were being shared by two patients. I had to buy a syringe and needle from the pharmacy in order them to take a blood sample and then queue for it to be processed. Gloves and aprons were non-existent and the place appeared very dirty. It was shocking, a frightening experience, despite the staff being accommodating and obviously trying their hardest. As a NHS worker it made me think we in the UK do not know we are born.

My time in India wasn’t all work. I had weekends free and took the opportunity to dd some exploring. We went trekking up a mountain in McLeod Ganj, visited fantastic temples and monuments, and made a scary journey on a 24-hour bus trip across the second highest passable mountain by road though desert, snow and sun to Leh.

The trip broadened my horizons. I met people from many different religions and nations. I tried amazing food - momos and milk cake, and drank gallons of chai. I learnt basic Indian cookery, yoga, and how to barter when shopping.

But as with all projects the volunteer experience had its pros and cons. The lack of organisation and structure I witnessed was frustrating, and it was not clear how money that is contributed is spent

Going to India was an amazing experience. Obviously eight weeks does not give you enough time to change the world, but the time gave me a chance to help form building blocks and enhance the lives of poor children.

It gave me an opportunity to experience a completely different culture than I am accustomed to. It made me appreciate the simple luxuries in life that we in westernised societies take for granted. The focus of people in the developing world is survival – finding food to feed the children, living on a day-to-day basis.

I am now back working in my previous role as an ICU sister. I do not want to forget the time I spent working in India. It was a very interesting experience – I feel I have greatly benefited from it and would certainly like to do some voluntary work again.

Jo Coward
jocoward@gmail.com

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