Trusted Guide to Medical Missions

mission nurses

Have you considered going on a medical mission trip or have wondered what they’re like? We have! But there are so many questions and seemingly so many varying resources it can be difficult to know where to start! So we teamed up with Ashley Elsbernd about her own experience to create this Trusted Guide to Medical Missions.

Medical missions are taken with the goal of providing medical care to underserved areas.  Going on a medical mission trip was something I had thought about for a long time. I knew friends who had gone on service trips as early as high school, but it wasn’t until I was licensed as a nurse that I really felt like I could make an impact (which is totally not true, just for the record!).  My close friend, Chelsea, had been on a handful of medical mission trips with various organizations, and she was definitely the catalyst of finally making one happen for me. She sent me a text last fall saying, “Hey, want to go to Africa in March?” and that’s what got the ball rolling (I mean how many people would say no to that question?).

So you want to go to Africa in March? Then read on!

Research Options/Types

If you Google “medical mission trips,” you will get an insane number of options.  I think this is why you talk to so many people who want to go but haven’t…figuring out where to start is overwhelming!  That being said, there are options for everyone, even non-medical personnel. The trip I went on focused on primary care through outreach clinics in rural areas, but I’ve heard of many different groups who provide a very specific type of health care such as cleft lip/palate repairs, cataract surgeries, pediatric cardiac procedures, dental care…you name it, there’s probably a trip for that!

Finding the right trip is a definite must.  While I don’t think you’ll ever walk away from a medical mission feeling like you shouldn’t have gone, having the right fit will make it that much better.  Is there a specific country you’d like to visit? Do you want to use your specific skill set, or are you open to getting outside your comfort zone with patient care?  Do you want to go with non-medical friends/family? Are you looking to do short- or long-term mission work? Do you want the trip to be strictly medical, or do you want other volunteer opportunities?  Are you ok with an organization that has ties to a church? These are all questions that can help you to narrow down the list of trips to go on. I think a great place to start is just by talking to people.  You’d be surprised at how many friends or coworkers have been on a trip, and most of us love to share that experience! Ask questions about what they did, what they liked and didn’t like, and the organization they went with.

To be completely honest, having Chelsea took all the front-end research work off the table for me.  That being said, my experience in Uganda definitely set the standard for what I want out of future trips.  We traveled with One World Health, an organization that serves in Uganda and in Nicaragua. What I loved about One World Health is that they only send teams quarterly, but they have established medical centers in each country that are open to treat patients 24/7/365.  Knowing this is huge. You tend to wonder where people turn for healthcare needs when the outreach teams aren’t in the country, but with this model, you know that the patient has access to medical attention after you leave. Their vision is largely focused on empowering people to take control of their health in the long-term sense, and it’s been a successful venture – their medical centers are designed to be 100% self-sustained in 18 months or less, meaning not only to patients have consistent access to quality healthcare, locals have job opportunities.  The doors to the first clinic opened in 2011, so One World Health has been around for a while, meaning they also know how to do their outreach trips in order to give volunteers a great and safe experience.

Since this was my first experience, I can really only speak specifically to how One World Health does things, but hopefully I can spark some questions to ask people who have been on other trips to help you find the right one!

Application

The word application may come across as intimidating, but it’s mainly just a way to stay organized and to make sure you have the appropriate credentials to go along!  Some organizations have you apply for specific trips, while others will file your application and contact you as volunteer needs arise. Typically, the applications feel like a job application – you will likely need to submit proof of credentials and answer a few questions about why you’d like to join them.  Most of the websites have great FAQ pages before you apply, and I’ve found that they’re very responsive when you contact them with questions.

mission nurses

Preparation & Planning

Preparing for Uganda was laid out nicely for us.  One World Health had online orientation modules that gave us an idea of what to expect on clinic days, an overview of each role, a brief cultural overview, and their expectations of volunteers. Once we got to Uganda, we were joined by a Peace Corps volunteer who talked about more specific cultural considerations, which was hugely helpful!  We were also provided with a country-specific packing list, which took a lot of the stress out of that part of the trip.

As with most things, the financial aspect of a mission trip varies with each organization.  In some cases, the volunteers’ trips are covered by the organization, and in others, fundraising is expected.  One World Health falls into the latter category, and I know many people shy away from that, but I found fundraising to be much easier than I expected.  Sharing about your upcoming experience on social media is a great way to let family and friends know about it and stir up some support. Some people just covered their own expenses, some got grants from work, and some got creative – one girl sold t-shirts, and a couple who owns a pizza joint had a beer and football night to raise money!  There were two fundraising deadlines – half of the amount was due a little over two months from our departure date in order to book flights. One World Health took care of that for us, and as a result, most of the team was able to meet up in the Atlanta airport and travel the rest of the way together. The full amount was due a few weeks before departure.  Our only financial responsibility while in the country was for any souvenirs we wanted to take home.

Planning further in advance definitely makes the fundraising aspect of a trip easier.  Most organizations have a list on their websites of trip dates and destinations as well as deadlines to apply.  My deadline was December 1 for a March trip, and I felt like that was an adequate amount of time to fundraise and prepare myself to go.  Since I’m working in the world of travel nursing, the time off was easy to accommodate (and lucky for me, the trip fell in between contracts), but advance notice obviously makes rearranging work and life schedules much easier as well.

mission nurse

Role/Responsibilities

Medical mission trips tend to have fairly specific roles for their volunteers depending on their credentials.  That being said, some may allow for flexibility. For example, in Uganda the nurses ran the triage area – we were the first point of medical contact for our patients.  However, I spent every afternoon working in the pharmacy area to help fill prescriptions. Other nurses helped to distribute meds and do some patient teaching, and some helped our physical therapist demonstrate exercises.  On some trips, people have been able to spend a day just interacting with people outside of a clinic role as well. It’s all dependent on the goal of the trip and the members of the team. One World Health has a team director and a medical director on  each trip, and they work together to determine the logistics the clinic: how many patients can be seen depending on patient flow, which areas may need help at various times of the day, etc. They are also a resource for the team members as questions arise.

When we arrived in Uganda, one of our first tasks was to get the items that are stored in the country and do an inventory.  This included equipment, office supplies, and medications. Basic medical equipment was available to us (first aid-type supplies, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, thermometers), but some people brought other supplies along with them.  This particular trip had a strong dermatology team, so two providers brought along a suitcase full of supplies for procedures. We also had several radiologists and had the luxury of a portable ultrasound. Some people also brought their own equipment such as stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs.  We were fortunate to not have to improvise on too much, and if the patient needed further follow-up, they were referred to One World Health’s medical center. Our team worked within our US scopes of practice, and I imagine other organizations operate in a similar fashion. I can definitely see where students may have more privileges on mission trips, and I’ve heard of trips where nurses have worked outside of that, but I feel like as medical professionals we tend to hold ourselves to the same standard regardless of where we’re practicing.  In my eyes, if I wasn’t comfortable performing a task or procedure with all of the resources and oversight I have in the US, I wouldn’t do so in another country either. A patient is still a patient.

NICU nurse

Experience

Being open to the different cultural norms is the best way to prepare for the culture shock, but there will, inevitably, be some culture shock.  We are so incredibly fortunate simply by living in the US, and it’s incredibly eye-opening to see how people do life in other countries and with other resources.  Knowing that it will be different is good, but try not to have specific expectations.

While we were in Uganda, we stayed at a hotel.  Mind you, it was not the Ritz, but we had running water, real toilets, and showers, so I was in absolutely no position to complain!  We shared rooms with other team members, which was a great way to get to know other people on the trip that you may not have gotten to know otherwise.  

Leisure time is dependent on how clinic days go, but there is always a little bit of downtime in the evening.  Some days we got back with just enough time to wash our heads and head to dinner, but the dinner table provided great opportunities to make connections with the rest of the team.  One World Health has also developed a pretty neat habit to foster this. After people are done eating but before leaving the dinner table, you’re given an opportunity to share your life story.  This could be as simple as where you were born, where you went to school, and your experience, but for most of our team, things got pretty deep. I heard intimate stories from many people that started with, “I can’t believe I’m even telling you this,” that sometimes ended in tears.  Opening up and being vulnerable, specifically with a group of mostly strangers, really put our hearts in a place to be open and shaped by the experiences of the week. We also had some time after dinner to play games or to just hang out with each other before bed. And, of course, I have to talk about the safari!  As a way to relax after a week of hard work, One World Health took us “glamping” and then on a sunrise safari.

Safety of the team is a top priority for One World Health, and in my opinion should be a top priority when you’re looking to join a team.  The hotel we stayed at was gated, and we were escorted by security guards whenever we were off hotel premises. Our drivers are locals with great reputations who have worked with the organization for years.  I love that One World Health partners with local people and places to build long-standing relationships that benefit both the businesses and the team.

Learnings & Take-Aways

This trip was definitely more of an opportunity for personal growth than professional growth.  That being said, there were things that came up during the week that are definitely applicable to daily practice.  Another unique aspect to One World Health is morning devotionals. They sort of set the stage for the day and give you reflecting points, but they definitely laid the foundation for some big themes throughout the week:

    • Identity: knowing who you are and what your values are sets the tone for the type of nurse you’re going to be.  What’s important to you? How do you want your patients to remember you? These are things we should think about with each encounter, no matter how brief.
    • Community: build connections with people.  How much more fun is it to go to work when you know, love, and trust your coworkers and patients?!  We’ve all got unique qualities – make it a point to learn about the people you’re working with.
    • Compassion: as nurses, we care deeply for people.  Remember that, even on the hard days and the busy shifts and with frustrating patients.  Don’t be afraid to show people you care – they’d rather interact with a person, not a robot!
    • Vulnerability: you don’t need to share all the details of your life, nor do you need to know all the details of someone else’s, but being vulnerable is to some degree is the only way to truly connect with people.
    • Joy: it’s everywhere, you just have to look.  Our jobs can be hard. It’s easy to let the sad get to you and find it hard to go back every day.  Look for the happy moments – they’ll reinforce why you’re there and make the heartache worth it.

One of our team directors summed it up perfectly by saying, “If you don’t go, you don’t know.”  So first and foremost, just say yes. Go into it with a positive attitude, an open mind, and an open heart.  Your experience is going to have an impact on you, but there’s no way to predict what that impact will be, so don’t overthink it!  There’s no way to know how your week will go, and the trip I took this March may look completely different next March, and each person tends to feel a little bit differently about their experience.  Be present and enjoy it! You get to make a big difference in people’s lives, and that’s nothing compared to the difference they’ll make in yours. And then go tell people about it. Nurses have been named the most trusted profession for nearly twenty years – we have the opportunity as a profession to make a HUGE global impact!  All it will take is people who are willing to go.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions!  My email address is ashleyeelsbernd@gmail.com. For more information on One World Health and the work they’re doing in Uganda and Nicaragua, visit www.oneworldhealth.com.  And if you’ve been on any mission trips, I’d love to hear about them and the work you did!
(and for some more of her beautiful pictures check out Ashley’s IG!)

mission trip

Ashley Elbernd
Ashley is a NICU traveler, life traveler, and recently completed her first medical mission trip in Uganda. She grew up in North Dakota, where she attended the University of North Dakota and worked in the local hospital’s NICU for a year before moving out to Denver. She spent two and half years in the children’s hospital NICU before taking the leap into travel nursing. She’s kept her assignments in the Midwest (Omaha, NE; Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis, MN) to be close to family and friends, but has been able to do a lot of leisure traveling as a result! Her 6-year-old English Bulldog comes with her everywhere, and they’ve had a blast finding all of the dog-friendly activities in each city.