The wonderful thing about the College of Nursing’s trip to Guatemala each year for the course Perspectives in International Community Health Nursing is that it’s not just a sight-seeing trip. Although we visited Mayan ruins and climbed an active volcano, the junior and senior nursing students who go on this trip aren’t tourists. They actually go into the regions where people have limited access to health services and provide care.
Our trip this summer was a typical example. One of the local public schools there asked if we could help them control a lice outbreak. Now, this may not sound like an ideal way for a 19- or 20-year old college student to spend his or her summer vacation, but our students didn’t flinch for an instant. They never cease to amaze me with their professionalism and strong passion to help others. We screened almost 500 children, nearly 200 of whom had head lice or nits. We treated those students with medicated shampoo and sent them home with special combs and information about how to rid their homes of head lice.
Spanish language instruction and cultural immersion are two of the goals the College of Nursing had for this program. During the 3-week course, students live with Guatemalan families in rural villages and participate in family and community activities, such as first communion, birthday celebrations, and national holidays. Each day, students travel by local camioneta (old school bus) into the beautiful city of Antigua where they take Spanish language lessons. These lessons really helped our students when they were creating informative posters for the public school’s lice outbreak. In the afternoons, students take part in or conduct various community health education programs with indigenous Mayan children. And at the end of each day, students go home to their host family to discuss their work, eat supper, and help their family with household chores. The cultural immersion aspect of this trip is important because it helps students approach nursing from a different point of view. At ECU, we provide a well-rounded curriculum, but there are some things that are difficult to learn without seeing or hearing first-hand. It is good for students to understand that not everyone in this world who has the ability to heal, does so in the same way.
On this past trip, our students learned about herbal and spiritual healing and cultural beliefs and practices through discussions with traditional healers and lay midwives. One midwife explained a belief of some Mayan women, that the umbilical cord of the first-born child carries the number of children the women is supposed to bear. Counting the white and red ridges of the cord gives women the number of female and male children she is meant to bear.
Such beliefs are outside of the realm of what modern western nursing teaches, but by learning about them, our students can begin to see the health implications they may create. The lay midwife went on to explain that this cultural belief is one of the reasons why artificial contraception is not acceptable in Mayan culture. And although she did not maintain this belief herself, she respected the belief and supported women in natural contraceptive practices.
As you might imagine, our students learn a great deal on this trip. But the nice thing about nursing students is that they always return with new questions to ask.
—Dr. Kim Larson