Jason Olson, Deseret News
Each spring, nearly a dozen Salt Lake Community College students travel halfway around the world to use their nursing knowledge to help children with birth defects and others who may have never seen a medical professional.
"In the orphanages, we try to see all the children at least once a year," said Donna Thompson, a SLCC nursing professor who made the Vietnam service opportunity available to her students after she participated years ago. About a dozen students are allowed by the parent organization, Children of Peace International, to accompany Thompson for a 17-day trip. Their time is spent examining children and addressing basic health and medical needs in rural villages from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city.
"People think insurance and health care is bad in the state, they really don't know how good they've got it," Thompson said. "There, they have no safety net; if you don't have money, you don't get treated." Although much of what they see in the foreign country deals with minor infections, students have their eyes opened.
"Most of the time, there's only so much we can do," Thompson said, recounting an experience with a woman who worked bent over every day, combing rice fields, and was given a simple package of ibuprofen to cope. "Those kinds of things work magic to them."
For the most part, the volunteers perform primary triage for walk-in patients in areas where medical care is normally not available. Nursing students check vital signs and make a head-to-toe assessment. The students keep a journal of their experiences and earn clinical credit toward graduation for their tireless efforts.
"At least one day during the two-week period, they will really have their mettle tested," Thompson said of her students.
SLCC's overseas efforts in Vietnam recently earned Honorable Mention in the 2009 Andrew Heiskell Awards for Innovation in International Education, as the school makes the program accessible to interested students.
Elizabeth Hawkes, a SLCC nursing student, has known since she started the program that she'd be trading in a vacation in order to help people in Vietnam. Leaving behind her family and her comfortable bed to work some possibly hot and long days, is something she is willing to do to make a difference to people.
"It's the nursing instinct in us," she said. "We're just hoping to do as much as we can."
One of the first things Hawkes will do for each child the medical mission examines is provide a bath and a tooth brush.
Vietnam's lacking health care system, which Thompson calls "rudimentary at best," creates an opportunity for nursing students to apply their skills and experience to something outside the box of what they are used to in the U.S.
Students who choose to participate in the Vietnam trip pay their own way, usually $3,000 or more. In exchange, they are able to learn more than they ever could in a traditional classroom about how diseases — such as malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever — plague real people in the world. Thompson said the students typically fill one of their two allotted suitcases with provisions, including vitamins, analgesics, toys, clothing and other items, for the struggling communities of Vietnam.
Because the students interact with other medical volunteers from around the world, it helps to extend SLCC's nursing reputation. Thompson said COPI organizers and participants have often commented on the quality of professionalism and performance of her accompanying students.
"These students are able to practice and refine their skills far more than they would ever have the chance to in the states," she said. Working with more than 200 people per day helps them "become much better and much faster and much more confident with their skills."
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