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Variety of the spice of life

There are opportunities aplenty for nurses looking for a change, writes Annie May.

Long has past the era where nurses were confined within the walls of a hospital ward. From educators to pharmaceutical sales representatives, researchers to working on oil rigs, the opportunities available to today’s nurses are as endless as they are varied.

But there are still two old favourites that Australian nurses continue to be attracted to – volunteering in a developing country and working abroad.

Of the many who each year decides to take their skills to another country are two Perth nurses, Margery Roberts and Stefanie Gardiner. But while they may come from the same city, where they ended up – and the experiences they had– couldn’t be further apart.

For Roberts, the desire to do humanitarian work took her to West Africa.

“A former colleague, Hannah, who came from Sierra Leone, died a few years ago after a horrific domestic violence episode,” says Roberts.

“I cannot help Hannah, but I can help other African women who face challenges that are unheard of in the developed countries of our world.”

Roberts is recently back from her second period of voluntary service onboard charity hospital ship Africa Mercy, operated by the global charity Mercy Ships .

She heard about the work of volunteers serving with Mercy Ships at an annual nursing expo in Perth a few years ago, and went to Benin, where the ship was docked, for 10 months last year.

“As a registered nurse I work in a busy surgical ward specialising in urology, gynaecology and vascular surgery. Aspects of that work are particularly relevant in assisting women who come to Mercy Ships for free surgery to repair obstetric fistulas resulting from prolonged or obstructed childbirth.”

She says there are many thousands of such women in Africa.

“Women, who because of a cultural background of carrying heavy loads from a young age, marriage and childbirth while still young are more at risk of obstructed labour during childbirth.

Without easy access to medical help, these women often lose their babies after prolonged labour and end up with a fistula causing permanent incontinence.

“Some women who come for surgery have lived with such conditions as outcasts for many years. To see the joy on the faces of women who are now ‘dry’ and able to return to live in their communities is indescribable.”

As with all volunteers, Roberts was required to pay her own way to and from Togo and pay crew fees while onboard to help offset running costs of the ship. She worked additional shifts throughout the year to cover the costs, and says her hospital was helpful in giving additional community outreach leave to add to annual leave to make it all possible. It was worth the effort, she says.

“The work being done my Mercy Ships volunteers is so important. It is not only medical. While free surgeries are provided in the onboard hospital with its six operating theatres to correct disability, deformity and blindness, volunteers from around the world are also out in the country providing a wide range of health care, educational, agricultural and community development programs.

“These are people in real need of help. Those who come for surgery are literally given their lives back. I really was excited to see that change in life given to women suffering from obstetric fistulas. It is the practice to give each new woman following surgery a colourful new outfit to signify her fresh start to life. There are some very joyful celebrations with singing and dancing before those women leave the ship.”

“There are more than 450 volunteers onboard the Africa Mercy at any one time. Some come for a few weeks, others for a few months, while others are there full-time. I am unable to commit to long stretches of time in Africa because of home commitments. But I hope to continue returning to the ship on future assignments, and I can see myself continuing to volunteer for short-term periods.”

Some six hours away by plane and a world away in conditions, Gardiner was embracing her new home in London.

Making the move two weeks after her 26th birthday, Gardiner arrived in London in April of this year excited and nervous.

“My overseas travelling experience up until that point was a family holiday in New Zealand, so arriving at an airport like Heathrow was a little surreal,” she says.

Helping to ease the nerves was the fact that she had people waiting to welcome her.

“My mum’s sister married an English man and moved over there about 10 years ago, so luckily I had a place to stay.”

Working in the UK had always been a part of Gardiner’s career plan, but there were times when she was worried she missed her chance.

“I heard I lot of stories about how the UK wasn’t taking Australian nurses anymore, or if they did I had to have advanced skills,” she says.

“But once I started researching it, I found there were still a lot of opportunities out there. I went through an agency which found me a position as a staff nurse in a large hospital and I have met so many Aussie’s working as nurses here.”

In the eight months of working in a London hospital, Gardiner says she has found many similarities between the UK and Australian hospital systems, but also a number of differences.

“Working here has made me appreciate Australia a lot more. Especially with nurse to patient ratios, which can be pretty appalling here.”

Nursing may be what got her to London, but it isn’t why she is there.

“I do love nursing, but I am here for the lifestyle experience. I have completely fallen in love with London. It is so full of life and there is so much to do.

“My aunty and uncle live in Bromley, which is about 15 or 20 km from the city, but I’m looking to move in with some friends within the month. There are also many trips planned to Europe – it still surprises me how close everything is.

“I went to Paris last month, which is literally just a hop away. Coming from Perth where it takes so long to get to other capital cities, that is incredible.”

As for advice for nurses considering working abroad, Gardiner says research is the most important thing.

“Look on the web at different agencies and options available, but I think the best thing to do is to speak to someone who has done it before. This part can take a lot of time, but it is worth it.”

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