Nursing students on study abroad work with Ukrainian refugees

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A group of nursing students explore a local castle in Finland. The students visited Finland and Poland for their global health study abroad. (Photo courtesy of Tiana Halterman)

BYU nursing students had the opportunity to help in a Ukrainian refugee camp and meet with advocates for victims of sexual assault during their unique immersive study abroad in Poland and Finland.

The 13 students plus their two faculty advisors toured hospitals, shadowed nurses, worked with other nursing students and enjoyed cultural staples like cooked reindeer and saunas in Finland. In Poland, the group visited a safe house for victims of sexual violence, the Auschwitz concentration camp and a refugee camp where nearly 3,000 displaced Ukrainians were living.

The refugee camp’s location is secret, to protect vulnerable refugees from money scams and human trafficking. Through connections with humanitarian volunteers in the area, the students were given a unique opportunity to volunteer in the camp for a day.

Natalie Wilson, a senior in the nursing program, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine and Moldova from 2018 to 2019 speaking Russian. Her language skills and cultural knowledge were invaluable in the refugee camp, where foreign doctors and nurses struggled to help patients because of communication and cultural barriers.

Wilson said she expected her group’s nursing skills — especially their professors’ — to be put to use in the refugee camp. When they arrived, she realized the camp volunteers didn’t need more medical professionals but help communicating instead.

“We got there and all they needed was a translator,” she said. “That’s the only thing that they needed because the language barrier is such a tough thing for everybody.”

Along with the language barrier, Wilson said she saw how cultural differences had made it difficult for refugees to trust and work with the doctors in the camp.

“Knowing a little bit about the people makes a big difference when it comes to giving them care,” Wilson said.

Without a translator, Wilson said doctors and nurses would usually use Google Translate to speak with patients. She said even though she lacked the medical vocabulary the doctors needed, asking simple questions such as “Hi, how are you?” and “How can I help you?” helped foster connections and trust.

“None of the people that are helping them are speaking their language,” she said, so even having one person be able to say a simple greeting is “so meaningful to them and it helps to make that connection.”

Wilson said those connections are an important foundation for medical treatment.

“It’s not what you would imagine, like it’s not just fixing arms,” she said. “It’s not fixing people physically, it’s so much about like, just making them smile.”

Wilson said the struggle between doctors and their patients brought back memories of facing rejection as a missionary. She said even though it was hard when people refused her gospel message, it was more difficult when she was offering potentially life-saving medical care.

“When it’s a matter of life and death, it was really hard,” she said about remembering how stubborn her Ukrainian friends had been. “I think it gave me a new perspective on the people that I taught.”

Returning to work with Ukrainians in a much different situation was an emotional experience for Wilson.

 Wilson said she felt “at home” in Poland, so close geographically and culturally to her mission. Returning under such intense circumstances was difficult.

“I cried at the end,” she said. “It was a really hard experience but I’m glad I was able to.”

Caring beyond borders

BYU nursing students tour a hospital in Finland. The group learned about different countries’ healthcare systems on their month long study abroad. (Photo courtesy of Tiana Halterman)

The students spent three weeks in Finland and one week in Poland. The war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and a nurses’ strike in Finland made their trip different from previous years, with less clinical practice and a stronger emphasis on global health and cross-cultural competencies.

Tiana Halterman, a senior in the program, said this culturally-immersive experience encouraged her be more open to new ideas and perspectives.

While working with Finnish nursing students on a mock examination, Halterman said she was struck by the cultural differences that influenced their medical decisions. While the American students suggested medication and more medical involvement, the Finnish students first recommended opening a window and letting in fresh air.

“That was really helpful to reinforce that there’s always another way of thinking about something,” she said. “Whether about medicine or social issues.”

In Poland, the students met with a group of women advocating for sexual assault victims. They visited a safe house with nurses, psychologists and lawyers who were available to help women dealing with sexual trauma.

“This was one of my favorite experiences on the trip,” Halterman said. “The women helped us feel so empowered to help other women!”

Senior Taylor Bird said the advocates for sexual assault victims taught her about advocacy and emotional care in nursing.

“It kind of taught me the skills of how to like, provide emotional support, even if I don’t have to use English,” she explained.

She said she realized that caring for people goes farther than helping them physically.

“At the end of the day, you can go to a foreign country, and you have no medicine, you have no equipment, you have no blood pressure machines, you have nothing but you do have the goodness of your heart,” Bird said.

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