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Challenges and rewards of volunteer nursing in Bangladesh

Working in volunteer emergency nursing teams overseas is challenging but also rewarding and eye-opening, say members of a group from Kettering who helped care for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Working in volunteer emergency nursing teams overseas is challenging but also rewarding and eye-opening, say members of a group from Kettering who helped care for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh


Pippa Coe: ‘It opens up your mind to a much wider world.’

Earlier this year, a group of nurses from Kettering in the East Midlands were among those helping to stem an outbreak of diphtheria among Rohingya Muslim refugees, who were fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh.

The group, sent by UK Emergency Medical Team (UKEMT), included David Anderson, head of nursing for urgent and emergency care at Kettering General Hospital, who spent 19 days in a refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.

‘I’ve been working in the NHS for a long time, so for me this is about trying to support those who are in a much less privileged place than we are in the UK,’ he says.

‘Volunteering helps you to see things differently’

As a team leader, his role involved co-ordinating staff rotas and administering anti-toxins to help prevent the spread of highly contagious and potentially fatal diphtheria. He also triaged patients – many of them children – who presented with sore throats, to differentiate between those who had mumps or tonsillitis.

‘We also did a lot of education while we were there,’ says Mr Anderson. ‘I think the biggest difference we made was helping the local Bangladesh health staff to develop their triage skills.’

Mr Anderson has been volunteering since 2014. He was inspired to become involved after watching the Ebola crisis unfold on television. ‘Volunteering helps you to see things differently, both in the care you give and as an individual,’ he says.

‘You need psychological resilience’

But he cautions that it is not for everyone. ‘You’re working in sometimes very challenging situations, where you probably won’t be able to deliver care at the level you want to provide,’ he says.

‘You need psychological resilience to deal with what can be quite distressing circumstances, but I wouldn’t be without volunteering now, and fortunately the trust is very supportive.’

Another volunteer, nurse Pippa Coe, says: ‘It opens up your mind to a much wider world.’

After qualifying in 2013, Ms Coe worked in A&E at Kettering General before swapping her permanent role for bank nursing to give her more opportunities to go overseas. She has worked with both UKEMT and Samaritan’s Purse – an evangelical Christian relief organisation.

‘Almost everyone would get something from it’

Ms Coe, who has also completed a tropical nursing diploma, says: ‘It’s easy to get stuck on local issues, but this makes you appreciate the problems others have elsewhere in the world.’

She believes it also broadens her nursing experience. ‘As we vaccinate in the UK, the vast majority of clinicians will never come across a case of diphtheria. A lot of us had to learn what it was, how it presents and how to treat it,’ she says.

For those considering following in their footsteps, Ms Coe advises reading as much as possible about what is involved before putting a toe in the water with a short volunteer opportunity. Mr Anderson adds: ‘It’s a brilliant thing to do. I think almost everyone would get something from it.’


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist 

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