A trainee nurse from the Fountain has had not only the time of her life working with needy people but also a rude awakening in terms of attitudes to health care provision outside the luxurious cocoon of Northern Ireland.
Stephanie Burton was one of 11 nurses training at Queen’s University, Belfast, who took on the challenge of working in a range of care-giving roles, from babies and infants in an orphanage to working in a neurology department in the main county hospital in Timisoara.
The conditions could not have been more starkly in contrast to those which Stephanie, who graduates from Queen’s in December, experiences at home as a student and on the wards of the Province’s hospitals.
“I got back last week from a five week stint in Timisoara,” she said.
“We went out on April 6 and where we were staying in Timisoara was three hours from Budapest and 12 hours from the capital, Bucharest. We flew into Bucharest, so it was just like here at the start, a big city, lots of shops and then we travelled out into Romania and the further away from the city you got the poorer it got.
“We were working in the County Hospital, Spitalul Clinic, a non-private hospital. In Romania there are a number of very big private hospitals which are more like hospitals at home, then there are the non-private hospitals, which are very different. To be honest, it was horrific; very cramped
“They don’t have hot water to wash patients, no towels. They have nothing. I don’t know how they are even running. While we were there we washed the patients and got them up and dressed, but if someone in Romania is in hospital and they don’t have family coming in to see them then they don’t get washed or dressed, they don’t even get dinner. They would not get anything to eat unless one of they family brought food in to the hospital every day,” she said.
“It was horrific. There was one patient who just did not eat for days. It was horrific at the start and we did not have an interpreter to help us so there was no one to tell us exactly what was happening; you had to work it all out by yourself. We were nursing these people, just treating them like we would any of our patients at home.”
Having fund raised before their departure the student nurses were able to buy goods and essentials when they went out to Romania, which helped them care for their patients.
“We took stuff in to wash and dress them and just make them feel human. It really was a culture shock to me, but seeing their wee faces whenever you were not even giving them a proper wash, just maybe washing someone’s hands and face, you would swear you could have been giving them Christmas.
“You could not communicate by language so you just used gestures. With the adults I was working in the neurology department, so I was working with those who had strokes, MS and Parkinsons. They were very ill and it was hard, but within a few days you got used to it, you didn’t want to, but you did get used to how things were and how they were done. You acclimatised to it very quickly.
“Because I worked in a neurology department in Belfast I knew how everything should be done and it was absolutely awful to see these people with absolutely nothing. I remember working with a wee man with Parkinsons and they didn’t shave the patient, so I shaved this man and got him sitting up. Sitting up he just looked like a totally different person,” she recalled.
Used to being left alone and not having anything or anyone to break the monotony of the day, the adult patients came to look forward to the ward visits by their young carers.
“You could see it in their eyes and on their faces when we came in. They got so excited, it was like ‘Wow! They are here again’. It was a real experience.”
Queen’s send teams of eight to 12 nurses out to Romania every two months, so over time the aim is to help educate and, hopefully improve the conditions for people in non-profit health units.
Stephanie and her colleagues also worked in an orphanage while in Timisoara, one of the main aims being to stimulate the infants and add colour to their isolated lives.
“It is really important for the babies to be stimulated because if they are not lack of stimulation can lead to negative health. If we did not do it then no one would do it because there are not enough workers for the children, who are lying in cots all day. If you don’t break the lack of stimulation they will end up with disabilities.
“We also went to an orphanage and worked in the children’s unit where children are brought after they are babies or where parents have left children who have disabilities. The children have been taken there and are abandoned.”
Such is the poverty in remote parts of the country, items that we take for granted here, such as Sudocrem for nappy changing, are highly valued commodities and frequently the groups of nurses who go out to Romania find that the things they bring out all vanish before the next group of students arrive, and they have to be replaced.
“It is really sad. It is cheaper to go to the shop for a bottle of vodka then to buy a packet of Pampers,” said Stephanie.
“There are staff there who care so much but in reality there is only one nurse for every 15 children and there was one nurse there who was really nice and who treated the children like they were her own, bathing them and putting them in nice outfits.
“The children are not allowed outside as they have this massive fear they are going to get sick and some of the mothers who bring their children here are living in the sewage systems under the city, so they think by bringing their children here that they will have a better life in an orphanage or baby clinic.”
Every day, after finishing in the children’s units the young nurses would go out into the community and visit families, many of whom were enduring dire poverty, and they would try and give them some basics and essentials.
“These would be much the same as you would find in a food bank here. While we were out it was Easter so we bought them some chocolate and they thought this was incredible.”
Stephanie admitted that her visit to Romania had opened her eyes to the suffering and need in others and made her appreciate how much she had by way of resources in relation to her own work.
“I’ll certainly think twice before I complain again,” she said.