UD nursing students dare to make a difference in South Africa
UD nursing students in South Africa during Winter Session 2011
Alexis Esbitt (left) and Jessica Smerling surrounded by school children
Shannon Copeland holding the baby boy she helped deliver


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5:39 p.m., March 2, 2011----Hand sanitizer, clean sheets and rubber gloves are basic supplies in most American hospitals, but a group of nursing students from the University of Delaware recently discovered that these “necessities” are often in short supply in developing countries.

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Led by Lisa McBeth-Snyder, instructor and coordinator of UD's Maternal-Child Simulation Lab, 30 junior and senior nursing majors spent UD's 2011 Winter Session in South Africa. They came away with a profound understanding of Third World healthcare conditions.

The trip was supposed to be an observational tour of several public hospitals, but it turned out to be much more. With the prenatal clinics seriously understaffed, the students immediately jumped in to help with routine exams and even medical emergencies.

Two of the young women delivered a baby, and two others provided CPR as first responders at an accident scene, including inserting an airway and directing the paramedics when they finally arrived.

Senior Shannon Copeland intervened in a maternity ward when she was convinced that a woman was closer to delivery than the nurse in charge believed her to be. Invited to examine the patient, Copeland discovered that the newborn's head was already crowning, and she went on to guide the baby boy into the world.

“This was by far my greatest experience in South Africa,” said Copeland. “It was so perfect. I hope to one day become a nurse midwife, and to have this opportunity was beyond amazing. The feeling I got while delivering the baby was just unlike anything else. I'm not even sure if I can adequately put my feelings into words. It was a wonderful experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”

Heather Shearer and Meghan Wilson, also seniors, were at a school in Pretoria when they heard a loud noise and people screaming on the other side of the fence. “When we ran out to see what had happened,” said Wilson, “we saw trees knocked over, a fence mangled, and a huge tractor down at the bottom of the hill that had lost control of its brakes.”

They also noticed that no one was helping out, so the pair applied chest compressions to a woman who was unresponsive and had no discernable pulse until paramedics arrived to take her to a hospital.

“She had a very weak pulse when she left, and we pray that she recovered,” Wilson said. “Their equipment was very far behind the technology we have here in America. I saw the paramedics brace a woman who had a broken arm with a piece of cardboard. Also, there must have been 50-plus bystanders who had no idea how to help out and no idea what CPR was.”

In addition to working six hours a day in hospitals and clinics, the students volunteered at orphanages populated with babies abandoned by HIV-positive mothers. They also helped raise money for these organizations and donated supplies.

“We were there not just to play with the kids,” said senior Bari Melker, “but to actually help the people who run the orphanages. These are places where you can really make a difference.”

“They need so much help, you could stay busy all day,” added senior Rebecca Paulhus.

McBeth-Snyder had expected the trip to be a life-changing experience for her students, but she hadn't realized that it would prove to be the same for herself. “I still haven't adjusted,” she said a month after returning to the U.S. “When you see how much is needed and what needs to be done, it seems so unfair.”

But she plans to take another group to South Africa next year and can't say enough about what this year's group accomplished in their five short weeks there.

“Despite the risk for HIV and other diseases, these students didn't hesitate on so many occasions to help out and make a difference,” she said. “They are really a remarkable group of young women.”

Article by Diane Kukich