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One nurse’s perspective on health care in developing countries

Nina Ng hugs a group of smiling Haitian children in a classroom while their schoolteacher stands nearby.
Nina Ng embraces children during one of her medical missions to Haiti.

Syosset Hospital's assistant director of nursing tells of the lessons she learned during medical missions abroad

My initial trip to Haiti was the first time I was exposed to humanitarian work. I saw with my own eyes what poverty really is outside of the United States, or at least what we consider poverty to be in a "first world" country. When you see those ads about people living on a dollar a day — over there it’s really true.

That first humanitarian mission with Heart to Heart International brought me to various clinics and orphanages in a nursing capacity, and changed my life considerably. We saw patients with chronic illnesses that were uncontrolled, like hypertension and diabetes. We did our best to teach them how to manage their health issues with what they had and what we could provide.

Not only did my perspective on world care change, but my perspective on the word “care." I realized I could use my experience working in hospitals as a bedside emergency room nurse and as a health care leader. It made me want to continue to learn more about what I could do to help.

Stabilizing trauma patients in war-embattled Iraq

After multiple missions to Haiti, I then went to Iraq. Hired as an assistant coordinator by NYC Medics, a nonprofit organization, to manage trauma stabilization points while working with the World Health Organization during the Battle of Mosul, my group facilitated patient flow and clinical operations. We stabilized and organized movement of trauma patients — civilians, soldiers and potential ISIS members who were struck by bullets, shrapnel and rockets.

I saw a lot during this mission, but my memory always leads me back to the children there.

We were driving from the city of Erbil, over to the war zone and we kept passing these little children on the street. Some of them didn’t have shoes and some of them looked like they probably hadn’t showered in days. They didn’t have smiles on their faces or frowns, they had blank expressions, but whenever we passed them, they would hold up their fingers to us like a peace sign — at least I took their gesture as a peace sign. From my interpretation, they were looking for peace during this time when they’re stuck in a situation in which safety and security is not an option.

For me, that is a strong reason for why I do the work I do. These children are truly innocent and we can provide care for them or even try to play with them a little bit and give them an experience that any child would and should have growing up. It’s really meaningful for me.

On the front lines in Bangladesh

Following the mission in Iraq, I went with a nonprofit organization named MedGlobal to Bangladesh to work in a camp filled with some 700,000 Rohingyan refugees in the south east region called Cox’s Bazar. There, we worked in primary care clinics, one with an emergency room. We’d have a room full of people every morning waiting to be seen. There might be 100-200 people waiting. Once we got there, the triage process started. There were children, adults and the elderly. Some had diseases that were too complicated to be managed by anyone in the camp, but we tried our best to make them comfortable. We did a lot of point-of-care testing for malaria and hepatitis.

During my first two-week mission, I was the only nurse available to care for the lines of people waiting, but my prior experiences grounded me and kept me always thinking about the children.

I remember I saw this baby, I brought him up closer so we could see him first and get him some medical attention. Sometimes they look younger than they actually are because they’re suffering from malnutrition. I knew he was sick because as soon as I picked him up, he just put his head down on my chest. He looked like he needed help a little sooner. I’ve learned from working in the emergency room how to identify who needs care first.

"I'm able to grow as a person and as a health care provider."

Traveling to impoverished and unsafe regions bringing care to forgotten people may seem like a completely different vocation than working in Syosset Hospital, but each trip abroad invokes a different emotional experience for me.

I definitely do take it home sometimes. There needs to be a bit of recovery space to digest it all. For me, I feel I’m able to grow as a person and as a health care provider. Nursing is an incredible profession.

Nina Ng, RN, assistant director of nursing at Syosset Hospital, was recently named as a 2019 Nurse Honoree for the Inspiring Global Nurse Award at the International Nurses Day event at the United Nations.