Discombobulated by an 18-hour overseas flight, separation from her fiancé and unsure of what she’d face in the developing world, University of Virginia nursing student Amanda Jenkins spent her first night in Malawi in tears.
After landing at a ramshackle airport in Blantyre, being mobbed at a community hospital where she’d passed out soap, Vaseline and detergent, and then traveling to the remote area where she and eight other U.Va. students and professors would set up the first of three clinics, Jenkins was dead tired, emotionally drained and missing the comforts of home. And that was day one.
“I spent the first night crying,” admitted Jenkins, a third-year student from Culpeper. “I wasn’t sure if I’d survive it. It sounds dramatic, but it was so different. I’d never seen places like this.”
But her mother, Vicki – concurrently enrolled in the School of Nursing’s RN to BSN program, who’d prodded the younger woman earlier this spring to join her for the venture abroad in late May – was by her side. In Malawi, each had the other’s back.
Joining with the U.Va. partner group Villages in Partnership, the Jenkins duo traveled to Malawi in late May to provide nursing care to its most rural citizens over 10 days. Vicki Jenkins, a long-time labor and delivery nurse who enrolled in U.Va.’s Nursing School in 2012, said the trip solidified her previously tentative plans to become a nurse practitioner and focus on community and public health.
“This kind of learning is why you choose U.Va.,” said Vicki. “I’ve been blown out of the water with the quality of education I’ve gotten here, and on the trip. It’s why you work so hard to come to a school like this. I just had no idea what I didn’t know.”
The group tended more than 2,000 patients during three daylong clinics, the majority of whom were HIV-positive. Many suffered from malaria and tuberculosis, had wildly infected sores, untended diabetes, intestinal worms and diarrhea – and left an indelible impression on both women.
So did the young boy who’d fallen from a tree, who beamed as his infected wound was rinsed with peroxide; a 3-year-old child whose massive ear infection oozed green pus; the 100-year-old man who cried when the Jenkins visited his home, grateful for their time and attention; the hospital sign that directed “rape victims” down a hallway; the people who’d finger the Jenkins’ blonde hair in amazement.
“People here in the U.S. talk about poverty,” Amanda said. “There are a lot of big conversations about it, but to really join those conversations you have to see it.”
Malawi is the world’s fourth-poorest nation. Average life expectancy is 39, and roughly 12 percent of the African nation’s nearly 15 million citizens are HIV-positive. While nearly two-thirds of the citizens are literate, the average yearly income is about $600, and the economy relies largely on agriculture.
For the Jenkins, the trip was an eye-opener. It was also a chance to compare American health care to that of a developing nation.
“Here, we treat a lot of things that there would be laughable,” said Amanda. “I found myself thinking, ‘If only they had access to this, access to that,’ but then wondering whether that was really true. Are we really better off because we’ve had a thousand X-rays? They’re not sweating the little things.”
Vicki added, “In class, you learn about the Affordable Care Act, implications of changes to patient care, and this was a trip that brings you back to community and public health in a very real way. I got to see (professor) Lucy (Goeke), and be amazed by her care, never leaving until everyone had been seen. I cannot say enough about what I saw in her. She listened, she assessed in a way we don’t do anymore: listening, touching. I watched that, and did it myself; it just felt so good, to make a difference.
“I was going to help,” she added, “but got far more out of it than I gave.”