When Dan-Dan Wlasuk headed to Uganda in May 2013 to spend eight weeks working in a health center, the young nursing student didn’t anticipate having the opportunity to help deliver babies.
Wlasuk, who earned her bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) degree in May from St. Mary’s College, was one of four nursing majors at the college selected to work last summer at a medical clinic run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the African nation.
She knew from the minute she learned about the student-practicum program that she wanted to be a part of it. Wlasuk says she was attracted by the opportunity to learn about the Ugandan culture and medical system while putting her nursing skills to work.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross health center, which includes small in-patient and out-patient wards as well as an HIV clinic, is located in Kyarusozi, a village in the west-central region of Uganda. Patients arrive on foot or on board moped-like boda-bodas. The closest village is thirty minutes away, and many are much farther.
“Women would walk all day” to reach the clinic, Wlasuk says, and some of the clinical staff nurses would travel to villages to treat those who could not come to the health center.
The clinic doesn’t have a full-time medical doctor and is managed by only two Sisters and their staff of nurses, midwives and lab technicians, so the nursing students’ roles are important. The students joined the nurses on their trips to rural areas to provide immunizations and also tested patients for HIV and malaria.
Wlasuk was surprised to find that her job also included performing medical tasks that student nurses are not permitted to carry out in the U.S. “They treated us like nurses, and they give the nurses there so much more autonomy,” she says.
She soon found herself learning to start IVs and conduct prenatal exams. Wlasuk learned to calculate IV drip rates because the clinic did not have IV pumps, and was taught to use a fetascope, a wooden tool that detects a fetal heartbeat.
To Wlasuk’s surprise, a local midwife even suggested that she deliver a baby – something she was relieved did not actually come to pass, although she did observe deliveries.
Despite the challenges of mastering the medical activities, she says her biggest challenge was learning the local dialect, Rutooro. Neighborhood children and the clinic staff helped by teaching the nursing students the key words they needed to communicate effectively with patients.
Wlasuk was interested in pursuing a career in medicine even as student at Sycamore. “I first wanted to be a doctor, then I wanted to be teacher,” she says. As an eighth-grader, she worked as a nanny for a nurse practitioner, and as a senior at North Central High School, she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She was attracted by the versatility of the profession, which would provide her with the skills to teach nursing students and to work as a nurse practitioner.
She says her education at Sycamore provided her with a head start to success. In eighth grade, she spent the day working with a teacher during “Shadow Day.” “That was really important to me,” she remembers. She also notes that Sycamore “prepared me to be more independent.” She singles out Mr. Schuth’s Chemistry course as particularly challenging. It was a “tough road,” she says, but “every time I took it I got a little better at it.”
That preparation enabled her to enroll in all AP honors classes during high school. She says her family, including her sister Mei-Mei, who graduated from Sycamore in 2004, “always looks back on the teachers, who were very supportive.” She recently stopped by Sycamore for a visit. “It’s still a close-knit community,” she says.
After returning from her summer in Africa, Wlasuk continued to support the programs of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She was chosen to be a peer-advisor for the Uganda study-abroad program applicants, and served as president of Belles4Africa, a club that raises funds for the Sisters of the Holy Cross hospital.
Today, following graduation from St. Mary’s, she’s awaiting news on potential jobs, which include nurse residencies at several universities.
The experience in Uganda taught her a lot about herself. “I am a lot more independent than I thought. If I push myself a little harder I can do anything I want.”