The University of Newcastle, Australia

Local nurse making big change in small communities

Friday, 12 May 2017

While Kate Tolhurst grew up in Newcastle, she always had her sights set further afield. Armed with a Nursing degree from the University of Newcastle (UON), she is the sole volunteer currently working at a public hospital in Peru, taking on significant healthcare challenges at just the young age of 22.

She is one of millions of nurses that will be celebrated today as part of International Nurses Day, held annually on May 12 to recognise the contribution that people in the profession make to societies around the world.

Kate is the embodiment of this year’s theme, A voice to lead – achieving the sustainable development goals. Only in her first year out of university, she has taken her skillset over 13,000 kilometres away to help those who need it most.

“I am working at Cusco Regional Hospital in the city and each day is different depending on where the most help is needed. Some days I assist in surgery or work in the triage bay in emergency. Other times I work in maternity or paediatrics where I help with administering medication and general nursing responsibilities on the ward,” she explained.

Kate believes one of the biggest issues facing healthcare in developing countries is the lack of education, among both staff and patients, as well as the lack of infection control.

“Lack of resources is a huge problem in the community I’m working in. The hospital is dangerously understaffed and desperate for general help. The developing world seems to be very behind the times when it comes to best practice for various reasons, from lack of legal obligation to lack of resources and education,” she explained.

Passionate about sharing her knowledge, Kate spends four hours each morning learning Spanish to better communicate with staff and the community, even visiting schools to teach healthcare to kids and families.

“This year’s theme is the reason I began nursing. Nurses have important skills that are vital for the survival and development of communities across the globe. I believe that nurses have the power to globally impact the world’s healthcare system and be a part of achieving the sustainable development goals,” she said.

Volunteering has always been in Kate’s blood. Keen to realise her growing interests in community outreach, she spent time traveling around the world working on several sustainable development projects before starting her degree.

“I was originally accepted to psychology, but decided to go with nursing as I felt it was a practical skill I could use to bring change to developing countries. It also seemed like a career where I would always be learning,” she said.

Kate was only one year into her degree before she undertook her first medical volunteering experience at a small community clinic in Livingstone, Zambia.

“Africa made me be creative and resourceful in the ways I never thought possible. I learnt to work with limited resources in emergency situations, communicate with people of all cultures and backgrounds and gain exposure to regional diseases,” she said.

She spent most of her time working in maternity, often having to deliver babies by candlelight and perform neo-natal resuscitation with no electricity or equipment, on top of walking an hour to and from the clinic each day.

“It was an incredible experience. I was performing procedures that were well out of my scope of practice in Australia but this is where I learnt the most. I had to think on my feet and it taught me to be extra careful with my practice, as many of the mothers had HIV,” Kate explained.

Kate has been able to adapt the fundamental knowledge she learnt throughout her degree to the various cultures she has worked within, which has helped her to implement sustainable and crucial healthcare practices such as basic hand hygiene and health education classes for women.

“Not all cultures benefit from doing things in the same way that we do them. Learning how cultures work, and working together with locals to come up with a plan to improve their quality of healthcare in a way that best suits them, has been the most enjoyable part of working abroad,” Kate said.

Despite the challenges volunteering can present, Kate is a keen advocator for other students to consider undertaking a similar experience.

“The experience is priceless. It changes the way you work and your understanding of healthcare needs. Volunteering abroad has been equally or even more beneficial to me than for the communities that I’ve worked in,” she said.

Kate plans to return to Newcastle before August to commence the John Hunter Hospital’s New Graduate Program.

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