Rebuilding lives in Samoa: working for an aid agency building new houses in Samoa has enhanced one nurse's personal and professional skills.
Subject: Nurses (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Nurses (Social aspects)
Disaster relief (Samoa)
Author: Travaille, Bill
Pub Date: 08/01/2010
Publication: Name: Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand Publisher: New Zealand Nurses' Organisation Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 New Zealand Nurses' Organisation ISSN: 1173-2032
Issue: Date: August, 2010 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 7
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product: Product Code: 8043100 Nurses; 9107810 Disaster Aid; 9107800 Disaster Relief & Insurance NAICS Code: 621399 Offices of All Other Miscellaneous Health Practitioners; 92219 Other Justice, Public Order, and Safety Activities
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Samoa Geographic Name: Samoa (Nation); Samoa (Nation) Geographic Code: 8WEST Western Samoa
Accession Number: 236247992
Full Text: Last September, a powerful earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa in the early hours of the morning. The large tsunami that followed caused more than 100 deaths, and significant property damage along a 60-kilometre area of the east coast of the island of Upolu.

One of the aid agencies that responded to this crisis was Habitat for Humanity New Zealand. Its aim was to assist local people build new houses for those whose homes were destroyed. Habitat called for volunteer builders, carpenters, plumbers/drain layers, electricians and handymen (and women) to help train the local Samoans to build new tales.

Nine from my church, St Alban's Baptist in Christchurch, responded--three builders, three electricians and three handymen. We formed part of a 20-strong team, spending two weeks in Samoa in April I stayed three weeks. Habitat prepared us weft for our stay, advising us to be "adaptable and prepared to rough it". Our team leader also invited a Samoan national and a member of a previous volunteer team to talk to us about what to expect.

A typical day began early with breakfast, work preparation and travel to our worksite on the back of a truck, alongside building materials and tools. A day's hard physical labour, interspersed with food and drink breaks, ended with a dean up of the worksite and travel back to base, where we arrived exhausted.

Fifty volunteers rived and ate together in a large church hart with a toilet/shower block added. We slept on mattresses on the floor under mosquito nets, thus becoming a dose-knit community. Every week, a new team arriving as another left.

Nursing skirts put to good use

Although building fales was the main focus of our trip, my nursing experience proved very useful among the volunteers. I looked after our drinking water that needed to be filtered and UV treated before being fit to drink. I also gave dairy advice and treatment to the volunteers, with the most common complaints being diarrhoea and vomiting. Fluids and electrolyte replacement were paramount. To make rehydration fluid, we made up sachets of gastrolyte powder. There was the occasional rash to took at, or something more sinister Eke a wound infection. Any injury, especially one involving skin breakage, needed to be disinfected immediately, otherwise it would quickly become infected and require hospital treatment or admission. There were consequently a number of trips to the smart local hospital 20 minutes' drive away for antibiotic prescriptions or, in a couple of cases, intravenous fluid replacement for dehydration. One of my friends received a mosquito bite, which became infected. After taking one course of oral antibiotics, he went back for a second course at my urging, because the infection had not cleared. It was another two weeks before it healed completely. At its height, it had become a raised carbuncle-type of a wound, approximately 15-20 centimetres in diameter.


Deeper understanding of Samoan people

My lasting impressions of Samoa are the relatively uncomplicated lives the people live, with little material wealth. What they do have is a more structured society, which gives them a strong community. Their extended fatuity ties are strong, somewhat similar to Maori. They are a deeply spiritual people and these values permeate their whore society.

Having rived among the Samoan people in their own country, I now find I can relate to them on a much closer lever when dealing with them professionally. I have a deeper understanding of them as a people, their background and social values. I stiff treat each on their individual merits, but having this extra background knowledge helps me.

I learnt some things about "tropical medicine", particularly the speed at which wounds and ailments can either heat or become a problem. Seeking early medical treatment was essential Having a continuous supply of good drinking water was essential to prevent dehydration. Soon after arriving, I noticed that some of the 20-litre water containers had a fine growth of algae on the inside. I asked for a bottle brush with which to dean them, but it never arrived. Help came from an unexpected source--one of the new plumbers who managed to procure some chlorine powder. Together, we made a weak chlorine solution, allowed the bottles to soak for four to five hours, then gave them a good rinse out. This cleaned the bottles beautifully.

I also came across a couple of cases of mild heat exhaustion among the volunteers. This was relatively easily dealt with by giving fluids and moving them into the shade to rest. Another problem concerned the local people's habit of acquiring stuff left lying around, then using it. Normally this is a good recycling practice, but some things should not be recycled, eg the timber offcuts we dumped outside the resource centre for disposal. Some locals collected them to burn on their cooking fires. We tried to dissuade them, as this was treated Umber containing arsenic, but they could not understand why a perfectly good resource should be wasted. The best solution was to burn the offcuts on a rubbish fire--not ideal but the most practical in the circumstances. Habitat was informed, but I had left before I found out what was done to dispose of these offcuts properly.

I learnt that the problem-solving/brainstorming/lateral thinking approach works well, even in a foreign country. These skirls are never wasted, and can always be developed or enhanced. Showing respect to people always pays dividends, no matter who you're working with, and having fun is a winner. I could have easily stayed much longer as I had acclimatised to the conditions and roved the people. I even enjoyed the work, despite the physical exhaustion.

Bill Travaille, RN, is a staff nurse in orthopaedic outpatients at Burwood Hospital.
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