Help: a fundamental role attributed to a friend, neighbor, and more frequently identifiable to me, as a nurse. Nurses sustain both a professional and personal accountability to the public as a person whose characteristics are compassionate, caring and helpful by nature. After four years of nursing school, clinical placements and work experience, I have certainly mastered the art of helping my patients. It was not until I began my journey in Ghana that I came to realize the act of being “helpful” can prove to be a much greater challenge in an environment that is vastly foreign to your own. From the language barrier, to an unfamiliar culture and diverse health system than what I am accustomed to, my notion of how to really help has been the subject of self-scrutiny. The story I am about to tell describes the struggles and strides I have encountered in discovering what I believe is my epiphany of how to really help.
As I began to wash a woman lying in emesis soaked sheets, I intuitively performed an internal skin integrity assessment noting multiple skin tears and bed sores on her body. How can I help? Immediately, my nursing instincts took over and I began to search for gauze, saline, a towel – anything to clean or cover this woman’s wounds. Something for the pain…pillows to alleviate the pressure…where else had skin breakdown occurred? I checked her ears, the back of her head, and all other bony prominences. The sheets had been soiled in blood. To no avail, these essential items could not be attained, and reality set in that all resources are a scarcity here. It became obvious to me that the gauze, the sheets, and the pain medication would be salvaged for another patient with a better prognosis. Again, the question arose in my mind…how do I help? The irony in answering this question is such that despite my routine efforts in fulfilling this fundamental nursing role, I have truly never felt so helpless. I went home that day filled with conflicting guilt, frustration, and a sense of defeat. In Canadian hospitals, helping is made easy by means of material items; here you must dig deeper, and illuminate your innovative self.
The following week my two colleagues and I knelt alongside a family whose son was close to death. Though we did not necessarily carry out any particular intervention, we provided comfort care and emotional support by remaining present, and encouraged the family to do so as well. A couple days later, we ran into this same family. They had returned to the hospital to collection their young son’s body. The family embraced us with open arms and expressed their sincerest gratitude for all of our support the day their beloved had passed. It was in this moment that the answer of how we can truly help began to surface. Help may not necessarily transpire as an action or intervention, but stems from compassion, empathy and kindness. The answer to how we really help is simple, when we extend our hand, offer a smile, or wipe a tear; this is how we truly help. We are also helping in ways we may not even recognize, for example, setting a positive example for others, or exhausting all efforts to look for the extra bed sheet that might not necessarily exist. After sharing this particularly moving experience with our instructor she said to us something I will not soon forget, yet so basic in principle, “simple caring translates across all cultures”. The story I have told is indeed a testimonial to this statement and I believe it will forever leave an imprint on my nursing practice now and for years to follow.