Jen Garrison ’10, a nursing major at The College of New Jersey, spent two weeks of winter break in Uganda, doing medical volunteer work through the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC).
Garrison didn’t go to Uganda with the expectation of changing the world in two weeks. Instead, she wanted to learn about the country’s health care system and connect with its citizens. “The people were so welcoming in Uganda, especially if you follow their cultural practices and you aren’t overwhelming. I didn’t want to go in and change anything. I wanted to help in the clinics and gain more of an insight to what the Ugandan’s lives are like so I could bring back valuable information to the U.S.”
FIMRC, which has established children’s health clinics in several third-world countries, focuses its efforts in Uganda around the rural community of Bumwalukani. Once Garrison decided to make the solo trip to Uganda through FIMRC, she joined TCNJ’s chapter of FIMRC, which organizes and fundraises for scheduled group volunteer trips for TCNJ students, to find out more about the organization.
Jerome Balbin ’10, founder and president of TCNJ’s FIMRC chapter, says he encourages students of any background or skills to volunteer through FIMRC. “Volunteering with FIMRC allows students to explore a wide range of career interests such as public health and medicine,” he said.
Once in Uganda, Garrison was determined to make the most of the trip. She would wake up early to volunteer at a clinic or health care center, then teach health and sex education lessons to local teenagers, then sometimes tour other health care centers. “I wanted to gain a little bit of experience in every area,” Garrison said. “Every day was just jam-packed with” different clinical opportunities.
Garrison also wanted to make sure she utilized all of her nursing skills. She started out taking vital signs at the clinic, but when she advocated for more advanced work, she was allowed to help out at a vaccination clinic.
This dedication did not surprise Susan Mitchell, a nursing professor at TCNJ and the FIMRC chapter adviser. Mitchell is currently teaching the Public Health and Community Health course at TCNJ, in which Garrison was enrolled this past year.
“Jen is a terrific student and a very good, deep thinker, and very good clinically [and] very independent,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell says she tries to encourage more nursing students to participate in global health volunteer opportunities, like those through FIMRC. It is difficult for nursing students to study abroad for a full semester because of their tight course schedules and clinic obligations.
Some of Garrison’s experiences in Uganda came as a shock. One medical clinic was overcrowded with patients and so short on supplies that patients had to bring their own IV equipment. With the lack of a thorough record-keeping system and so many patients to see, the vaccination clinic moved at a nerve-wracking speed.
“That was very challenging for me because it was disorganized and stressful,” Garrison said.
But she also worked at a more advanced pediatric neurosurgical center. It was the only health clinic outside of the capital that had a CT machine. Garrison said the nurses and doctors she worked with during her trip were very welcoming and helpful and the patients, who called the nurses “sister,” were grateful for any help.
Garrison also made sure to have some adventurous fun while in Uganda, like bungee-jump into the Nile River. To conclude the trip, she climbed Mount Nusu, where she could see Kenya from a distance. She realized just how far the Ugandans have to hike for necessities, including health care.
The overall experience, Garrison said, was life-changing. “As a nurse, we always worry about the littlest things, but now I [can better] look at the big picture,” Garrison said. She now feels more comfortable prioritizing and working in non-optimal conditions while on the job. It also solidified her passion for working in a neonatal intensive care unit or in pediatrics after graduation. Once she gains some work experience, Garrison plans to go to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner.
Garrison also hopes to make more trips like the one to Uganda in her lifetime. She said she would love to volunteer through FIMRC again in another country.
“I feel like I always want to continue doing that, seeking situations that force me to challenge myself and meet new people and experience different lifestyles,” she said.