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Nursing for better futures

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Nurses and trainee nurses in Malawi and Sierra Leone have support to study and follow successful careers, thanks to Brid Hehir

There aren’t many people who have changed the lives of both nurses and patients who are half way across the world - but Brid Hehir has accomplished both.

She is development manager (fundraising) at Do Good Charity (DGC), which helps nurses in Sierra Leone and Malawi to fulfil their potential and offers them hope when their future looks bleak.

DGC is the fundraising arm of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God. The charity runs a nurse sponsorship scheme for nurses and nurse trainees living in Malawi and Sierra Leone who wish to pursue a career in nursing, but do not have the financial means to do so.

Many who come on the scheme have been orphaned or forced to abandon education to take on jobs such as street trading or farming to make financial contributions to their households.

This was the case for Mary Fatmata Kabia, a survivor of the 10-year civil war in Sierra Leone, who took to selling commodities after her mother and sisters were killed by the rebels.

The scheme not only equips its graduates with the foundations necessary for a successful nursing career, but also contributes towards improving the quality of life for the nurses, their families and local communities.

Statistics from international HIV and Aids charity Avert indicate that 920,000 people in Malawi and 40,000 people in Sierra Leone have HIV. There is a huge demand for nurses and health professionals in these countries, but both are in short supply, so many rely on healthcare services provided by charities such as DGC.

When asked by John Mitchell, the director of fundraising, to set up a London fundraising office for DGC, Ms Hehir, a former NHS sexual health nurse and health visitor, jumped at the opportunity. “It seemed like a challenge worth rising to,” she says.

The scheme has two divisions. People who live in Sierra Leone and have little or no nurse training can apply for the state enrolled community health nursing course. Qualified nurses in Malawi are offered graduate training in mental health nursing In Malawi.

To date, 230 nurses have graduated from the scheme in Sierra Leone. These nurses regularly look after people with cholera, dengue, hepatitis and tuberculosis, with many going on to work in specialist fields, such as midwifery, orthopaedics and paediatrics.

“I have met graduates who have become dental nurses through additional training and can now perform dental treatments such as fillings and descaling,” Ms Hehir says.

In Malawi, there is a demand for nurses who specialise in mental health.

“In Malawi, there is one consultant psychiatrist for the whole country, so mental health nurses are the backbone of the mental health services,” she says.

“Although some psychiatric doctors work in the bigger hospitals, there are not enough of them. Inevitably, mental health services in the rural areas are limited so the work we do here is vital.”

So far, 46 nurses have graduated with a BSc in mental health-psychiatric nursing.

Ms Hehir’s role can be heartbreaking, as her recent trip to Lunsar, a village in Sierra Leone, shows.

While there she met Isata (not her real name), a mother with HIV who insisted on bottlefeeding her son.

With limited access to clean water or sterilising equipment in Lunsar, bottlefeeding is ill advised.

Two of Isata’s children had died, and she linked breastfeeding to their deaths, so hoped by bottlefeeding this baby he would survive.

Isata told her husband she was not producing milk as he did not know she had HIV. “It was awful. The baby was only three days old,” Ms Hehir recalls.

Although her job can be emotionally strenuous, Ms Hehir finds it extremely rewarding, and says the most satisfying aspect is “having people donate to support the work” DCG does.

Louise Daniels

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