Jemma travelled to Ghana in 2010. Since then she’s worked as a cardiac nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital and pursued her passion for tropical nursing in Malawi.
We recently caught up with Jemma to talk about how her overseas placement influenced the rest of her career…
So Jemma, what made you want to study nursing?
I don’t know. I’ve always felt like nursing is more of a passion than a job I guess – like you’re just built for it.
It’s something I was naturally drawn towards and I felt it fitted with my personality. It felt like a natural calling. I think you are either a compassionate person or more of an academically driven person. I’m the former.
You studied for your nursing diploma at the University of Salford – what attracted you there?
I was after some change, but not too much. I’m from London and I was keen to experience a new city.
The university had great reviews and they offered the Children’s Nursing Diploma. The city itself was cool and the school was highly recognised, which was important to me too.
And what was it like to study at the University of Salford?
Apart from all the fun I had and the great people I met, I struggled academically if I’m honest. I was always more of a do-er and an explorer rather than sitting down and writing, so I did struggle with the academic side of my course.
But I found the practical side easy. I loved placements. I enjoyed learning clinical skills. I just didn’t love writing essays.
So how did your overseas placement fit into all of that? When did you travel with us?
I went to Ghana in October 2010, so I would have been in the second year of my Diploma.
I remember, me and two peers from my course all wanted to go together and we applied for funding through the university. We did a big presentation about our upcoming trip – we spoke about Ghana, Work the World and why we wanted to do it.
We had to demonstrate that the placement would be worthwhile and it would be beneficial to our learning.
Out of our whole cohort, we were the only three going overseas to a developing country for our placement, so it was quite a big deal and I don’t think many students had done it before.
The university and our lecturers were supportive, but of course, they wanted to make sure it was beneficial too. We were just pumped to get out there and have this big experience!
What was it that made you want to go overseas on an experience like this?
Being a student nurse is stressful – you have to learn, you have to do clinical placements and you’ll likely have a part-time job too to support yourself. And you do learn a lot from your placements in the UK, but I just never felt pushed in a way that I’d feel overwhelmed or completely out of my comfort zone. That’s what I was after.
I often heard about the differences in healthcare in developing countries, so why not jump at the chance to see it for myself? The university allowed us to do it, why not take the chance to experience something that not many others have the opportunity to? All this while being able to travel to a new country!
Why Work the World? Can you remember how you heard about us?
I remember Googling a lot. And everything just seemed a bit complicated. But when I came across Work the World it all seemed so simple.
I exchanged a few emails with the team and had a few phone calls and it was just like, here’s your house where you’ll be living, this is the hospital where your placement will be, this is the village where you’ll be based, these are your mentors, these are the other students you’ll be living with – it was so clear. And it just got me so excited.
Back when I travelled it was quite pricey, but I was so willing to pay for such a service and opportunity that was so well recognised. I read loads of reviews and it just felt so exciting, to be honest.
Was there anything that worried you about going overseas for your placement?
I think my parents were more worried about it than me. I couldn’t wait to get out there. I still remember packing my bag and having a Chinese the night before with one of the girls I was travelling with because we lived together at the time. And then we headed off to the airport and our parents came and we all had breakfast together.
Nothing scared me. I’m quite an adventurous person, so the thought of going on such a trip, I just saw it as a big adventure. It was so exciting – I was on a massive high.
I know it was ten years ago now, but can you remember what your first 24 hours were like once you landed in Ghana?
I remember driving through the village in a taxi with all of our luggage and pulling up to the house. I remember the friendly security team waving like crazy at us as we went through the huge gates. It was a beautiful house.
The three of us were sharing a room and I remember bickering about who was going to sleep where. I loved our room and the whole Work the World team out there. There was such a nice family vibe to the whole place. There were a few people already there and we all got on instantly and had dinner together because we were fortunate enough to be cooked for.
And what about your hospital placement – what departments did you spend your time in?
Because I’m paediatric trained, and we were able to rotate through different departments, I spent half my time on the paediatric ward and half my time on the neonatal ward, with a few days in the maternity department so I could see labour.
However, I got malaria and this took some time out of my placement. But, it didn’t dampen my spirits! It led to some great things for me… I’ll tell you all about that later.
Wow, that sounds intriguing. But, just to go back to your placement – can you remember what the day-to-day was like in the hospital?
Because we also lived with medical students in the Work the World house (which was amazing and such a great support) we’d all share a taxi to the hospital and then we’d go off to different wards for the day.
We’d turn up on the ward, and when I was in paediatrics I’d join in with the ward round with the doctors. This took up a lot of the day.
I’d spend time chatting with the nurses and the Ghanaian student nurses to see what they did and how their training differed from ours. It was a great opportunity to exchange knowledge and learn from one another – we’d ask to see how they did things and then they’d ask to see how we would do it back home.
It was challenging at first to see a different way of nursing because I was young and so used to the NHS way of doing things, but it was important to accept that people do things differently and you had to be mindful of different capabilities and what the hospital was capable of doing too.
That was often how the day would go. Then we’d all meet up again later to have a drink at the swimming pool or go down to the beach.
We needed to have a good work-life balance. We would talk about what had happened during the day at the hospital and chat about the different ways of coping – it was nice having that unofficial debrief every day.
So, you found living with other students in the Work the World house beneficial then?
I couldn’t have done it without the others in the house. I made such good friends with everyone and every night we’d play games together or have a drink and chat together at the weekly BBQ nights.
Everyone was such a laugh. I still speak to them ten years later. We try and meet up now and again, but it’s more difficult these days. I made long-lasting friendships – it made the whole experience. On the weekends we’d all go away together, body boarding or camping. It was amazing.
Did you face any challenging situations while you were there?
The death rate was hard to accept for me. But in Ghana, they just didn’t have the equipment to deal with some emergencies. A child would stop breathing but there wasn’t much that could be done. They would manually resuscitate them, but eventually, it wouldn’t be enough.
If you look at resuscitation statistics in the UK the chances of survival are slim, and that's with all the technology and equipment. If there was a newborn in Ghana who had stopped breathing in an incubator that doesn’t work – there’s nothing you can do about it. That was hard to accept and not get too emotional about. That was a big challenge for all of us actually, that particular child.
Do you think experiences like that changed your approach to the rest of your nursing career?
From that one experience in Ghana, my whole attitude to nursing has changed. Humanitarian work is my passion now. And it might not have been if I hadn’t been to Ghana.
I’ve always been an appreciative person, but I’m much more so now and just thankful. I see the good in most things.
Some things aren’t worth getting wound up about unless you can change them and fight for them. But if you can’t change them sometimes you just have to accept them.
So what happened once you graduated? What’s your current role?
After I finished my training at Salford I worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital for three years as a cardiac nurse. Then I took a few months off to travel around Asia and Australia before going back – I worked there for five years in total.
I then did a diploma in Tropical Nursing in London which was the best bit of education I’ve ever done. I think it’s because it picked up on my passion and my time in Ghana. I was training at this highly recognised school in London, surrounded by like-minded people who had worked all over the world. It was incredible.
I was able to learn about all the things I’d seen in Ghana such as malaria, HIV, worms and TB. It was amazing to learn more about the things I witnessed during my placement. It was great to bring it all together, my experience in Ghana helped.
I met a friend on the course and we ended up going out to Malawi together for six months to work for a charity out there. We were part of a group of professionals from all over the world working together in a clinic. It was similar to a GP clinic in the UK with inpatients and outpatients so people from the village could use it. It was quite a special place.
I was able to put into practice what I’d learnt in London. It was great to go back to Africa with all this emotional and practical knowledge that I’d gained from my time in Ghana and my tropical nursing course. I knew it would be hard, but I was prepared.
When I came back to the UK I worked as a nanny for a while and travelled to Mozambique with friends.
I did palliative nursing in the community for a while too whilst I decided what I wanted to do next. I met an organisation who were working out in Uganda focusing on maternal health. So I went out to Uganda in January this year. But, I had to come back to the UK after a few months due to Coronavirus.
But I’ve got a few things in the pipeline. Before Coronavirus and before Uganda I applied to be on emergency rosters at two organisations and I did some big training events with them focussed on disaster relief work.
At the moment I’m working in a local general hospital in Devon, on a paediatric ward which is great because it’s good to touch base now and again to keep my skills up.
I’m just always itching to get away, I’ve never settled anywhere for more than six months because I always want to be abroad. I want to be out in developing countries because I feel like that’s where I’m most utilised, that's where I fit the most.
I love the UK and the NHS, but I just don’t ever feel like I am ever really truly fit. My passion is elsewhere and my drive is humanitarian work. And that all comes from ten years ago!
So do you think your Work the World experience in Ghana has contributed to what you’ve achieved so far?
I think it made me where I am now. It made me more eager to do what I do now. I often talk about how my experience in Ghana changed my outlook on life.
I can’t believe it’s been ten years, to be honest. What with getting malaria, it always crops up that I got malaria ten years ago. I ended up working quite closely with a charity called Malaria No More UK. I campaigned in the Houses of Parliament and did a few pieces for magazine articles and newspaper reports. I even wrote to the Queen and Downing Street and received responses. My experience in Ghana has led to some huge adventures – it’s just been incredible.
It certainly sounds like it! So, what are your ambitions for the future?
I’d love to carry on with what I started back in January in Uganda. I was meant to be out there for a year, so I’d love to go back.
But, in the meantime, I’m quite excited about the future and doing some short-term projects in the UK so I can see my friends and family. But, knowing at any moment I could get called up on an emergency roster is exciting.
And lastly, do you have any words of encouragement for students thinking about undertaking an overseas placement?
Do it! I think it should be in the curriculum at every university. Students shouldn’t be forced to do it, but they should be encouraged to. To go out of their comfort zone and experience things they’ve not experienced before. I think it was the making of me as a nurse.
I’ve met a few students who have done it, and they’re just different from other students. You have students, and then you have this special kind of student who isn't fazed. They’re excited and they’re willing to learn.
I think an overseas placement can help change your perspective and get you more excited about nursing. Nursing is difficult and it’s under a lot of pressure and strain at the moment, so I think it’s extra important to always be excited about what is out there. I think an experience like the one I had in Ghana prepares you. It makes you a stronger person.
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