India gives health care students a lesson in empathy

Twelve students from Linfield College threaded through throngs of people, cows, elephants and camels on India’s congested roads last month, traveling the country to study health care.

They were visiting hospitals and health care clinics, a home for the destitute and dying, a leprosy hospital, facilities that serve people with mental health problems and disabilities, a nursing school and one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages.

India is grappling with the most basic health issues: lack of clean water, pollution and severe poverty, and many Indians have no access to health care say Linfield nursing Professors Vivian Tong and Beverly Epeneter, who led the group.

But there is much to learn from our Indian counterparts, said nursing student Anna Sours. “Buildings are sometimes open to the weather, nurses sleep onsite on metal bunks, and clinics have older equipment than U.S. facilities. But the care of the staff is still there, the dedication nurses have to their patients is inspiring, and many clinics provide primary care to rural populations at little to no cost.”

Health care also gets a boost from the strong sense of community, said Tong, who has developed and taught health care courses in India, China and Russia. “People watch out for each other. Even destitute people share food and water.”

Unfortunately, the sense of community sometimes breaks down between those afflicted with leprosy and their friends and family. Linfield students visited the Premananda Leprosy Hospital in Kolkata and, although the disease is not contagious, many patients languish there, disfigured beyond recognition and neglected by fearful families.

“As we walked into the rooms we were greeted with ‘Namaste’ and their hands went up as if in prayer,” said student Megan Godwin, who said the patients voluntarily showed their deformities to complete strangers. “I felt slightly uncomfortable to be in their space,” she said, “but after seeing their smiles and welcoming gestures, I remembered how meaningful it must be for someone to share their space when they are commonly feared.”

Patients were visibly moved when the students talked to them and held their hands, Tong said, and many were reluctant to let go.

“This experience gave me a new appreciation for the circumstances which I have been born into,” said student Brooke Carstensen.

“It’s a difficult course,” said Epeneter. “India presents an overwhelming assault on the senses, with its smells and sounds and sights, but in spite of the poverty and pollution, India is probably the most fascinating place in the world. You can’t spend a month in the country and not be changed in significant ways.”

“Here are these students who traveled all the way from America, visiting the poorest people in the world,” Tong said. “We’re nurses. We are learning the ‘empathy’ part of health care education. This is what nursing is all about.”


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