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NKU Nursing Student Saves Baby's Life While Studying in Africa

Heather Averbeck has worked in the trauma and neurology unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center for nearly four years. But it took just five weeks in Tanzania to realize how much more there was to learn.

Heather, a 23-year-old nursing senior at Northern Kentucky University, was able to set up a 5-week study abroad trip through the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS) with the help of NKU's Office of Education Abroad.

As soon as Heather’s plane landed in Tanzania—the east African country that is home to both the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro National Parks—she realized she needed to quickly adapt to a world much different than the one in which she grew up. Along the airport runway were men cutting grass with sickles. Inside, the walls were lined with uncovered outlets and a tangle of wires. On the roof, two men welded, raining sparks down upon the hundreds of people who made their way to and from their gates.

During her stay in Tanzania, Heather stayed at a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital. She took two classes—one a practicum and the other a global health nursing class.

“The global health nursing class was extremely helpful in balancing in my time there,” Heather says. “It was all about learning how to work with people who aren’t from your culture.”

The practicum, where she spent most of her time, was at a local community hospital called Sinza. Heather brought her dictionary every day and tried to learn as much Swahili in order to best serve her patients. Doctors and nurses helped translate when necessary.

Heather was the only student allowed in the labor ward of the delivery unit, an honor bestowed to her because she had more experience—including a clinical rotation that lasted three months—than the other students there. Heather quietly observed and then performed deliveries on her own with supervision.

“They would just say, ‘Watch me and do the next one,’” Heather says.

Since Sinza Hospital had a minimal supplies, most women who were expecting brought their own—syringes, blankets, umbilical cord clamps. Every day was different. One day, a patient didn’t know she needed to bring a clamp, so Heather and the doctors tied a glove around the umbilical cord in its place.

But there was one day that Heather will never forget. She heard a woman screaming, which was unusual. Most of the women in the delivery unit, although unmedicated, were quiet.

“I looked through the curtain and saw a foot and the umbilical cord,” Heather says.

Heather quickly learned that a complication had resulted in umbilical cord prolapse, cutting off the baby's oxygen supply.

In the U.S., it is protocol to rush the mother into the operating room for a C-section. But there was only one operating room in Sinza, and it was occupied.

A nurse walked over to Heather and told her she would take over. Heather didn’t want to walk away, so she stood aside and watched. After a few minutes, the nurse took off her gloves, threw them on the ground, and walked away from the table. She told Heather the baby showed no sign of life—there was nothing they could do. The nurse returned to help deliver the baby, who was stillborn, but it was Heather who immediately began CPR and compressions.

At least a minute passed before Heather felt a heartbeat. Then the child began breathing on its own.

“That moment was the happiest I’ve ever been,” Heather says. “I saved this child’s life with my bare hands and nothing else. It really gave me a lot more faith and trust in the nurses.”

Heather also was able to do home health visits through WAMATA, an organization that works with HIV/AIDS patients. They delivered food to the patients and learned about the challenges they face, like being shunned from their families and neighborhoods.

Heather, who is set to graduate in December, says she would love to go back to Tanzania given the chance.

“I can’t believe I almost graduated college without doing this,” Heather says. “Working in Tanzania definitely taught me how to compromise and work with literally nothing. I think I learned that I actually knew more than I thought I did. I often doubted my judgement when I was in situations where I needed to act quickly. I just knew it was now or never, so I needed to trust myself and my nursing regimen and just do it.”

Written by Jayna Barker, NKU Marketing + Communications

Reprinted with permission

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