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Volunteering in a disaster zone

In the dozen or so days after the devastating April 25 earthquake in Nepal, in which more than 8,000 people died, many international search and rescue teams arrived and left.

In the dozen or so days after the devastating April 25 earthquake in Nepal, in which more than 8,000 people died, many international search and rescue teams arrived and left.

They were followed by a second wave of emergency response healthcare teams belonging to smaller non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even nurses volunteering independently. But once there, these highly motivated, well-trained health professionals found it challenging to reach earthquake victims in need of help.

‘The worst of the medical emergencies in the immediate area of the capital Kathmandu had been dealt with by the time many NGOs arrived,’ says Emily Scott, a labour room nurse from Seattle in the United States, who spent a week in Nepal with the medical volunteer organisation Global Outreach Doctors (GoDocs).

Seattle labour room nurse Emily Scott spent one week in Nepal as part of a Global Outreach Doctors team. Picture credit: Mike Morse

One hurdle was that local authorities were reluctant to co-operate. Ms Scott, who spoke to Nursing Standard on her return to the US, says: ‘We had hoped that the Nepalese government would allow us to reach remote areas that were without medical care, but bureaucracy delayed things.’

Once GoDocs had established an operational base, its volunteers worked with a Buddhist relief group called Global Karuna, which already knew where aid was required and provided the 4x4 vehicles the volunteers needed to reach survivors.

‘Once we had permission from the ministry of health, our local partners drove us out on tiny roads along steep cliffs, finding wounded people who needed help,’ Ms Scott says.

While foreign nursing skills are valuable, training local nurses in developing countries can be even more worthwhile. This boosts the first response in a disaster.

Joe Niemczura, a registered nurse and US university faculty member, has been teaching adult critical care to Nepalese nurses and doctors. He was in Nepal the day the earthquake struck.

About 800 local health workers whom Mr Niemczura had trained helped patients in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Kathmandu. ‘Training everyone is a critical aspect of earthquake relief work because you have no idea which medical team member will survive the initial shock,’ he says.

Co-ordinated international aid efforts are beneficial if organisations or countries send complete teams, which then set up their own field hospitals, Mr Niemczura says.

But he is uncomfortable with the idea of foreign nurses flying in independently to offer bedside nursing after an emergency, since ‘they would probably need help themselves, given the language barrier and different hospital systems’.


Further information

Global Outreach Doctors

Global Karuna

United Mission to Nepal

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