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From American Red Cross founder and nurse Clara Barton to nurses Florence Nightingale and Dorothea Dix – all famous for their healthcare reforms and wartime contributions, nurses across history have stepped up to volunteer in times of need. Caring and service are central to the nursing profession, and international volunteering is one of the many ways today’s nurses carry on that legacy.

South University - West Palm Beach RN to BSN Program Director, Dr. Julia Canipe (RN, DNP, CNE), is one such nurse with a passion for volunteering. Born in the country of Belarus and now living in the US, Canipe spent two weeks volunteering in her home city of Minsk with the International Children’s Heart Foundation. Working with an international group of healthcare providers, Canipe helped to complete 33 successful open-heart surgeries for children born with congenital heart defects as a result of radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The experience was both rewarding and unforgettable and, now, Canipe hopes to inspire other nurses to follow in her footsteps as global volunteers.

Julia Canipe in hospital room with child patient

The Impacts of Being an International Nursing Volunteer

By volunteering abroad, nurses can help to alleviate global health care disparities and inequities – providing direct care that changes patients’ lives as well as offering much-needed education and medical supplies to the communities they visit. Volunteering can also ignite personal and professional growth for nurses, as they push beyond their comfort zone, expand their skills and broaden their understanding of the world.

However, because international volunteering typically requires at least a week outside the country, nurses who wish to volunteer must find a way to fit it in amidst other personal and professional responsibilities. Planning any such trip requires support from family, community and employers. Concerns about navigating language barriers, extreme poverty and unfamiliar customs and governments can also cause hesitation, but those willing to overcome these fears and other barriers can make an incredible impact.

“We’re always so focused on what’s happening in our backyard, that it can be a very rewarding thing to realize that we can make a difference outside our own little corner of the universe,” says Canipe. “There are so many people out there in need of skills that we as nurses have to offer.”

How to Find and Prepare for a Nurse Volunteering Trip

The first step after deciding to volunteer is researching organizations online. Reading stories of volunteer nurses is a great way to learn about organizations and specific trips. For any organization considered, nurses should check that its mission, values and vision align with their goals and that the organization is legitimate and reliable.

For any trip, nurses should also inquire about the living environment, trip duration and expectations for care providers. “The organization may need providers to deliver direct hands-on care or they may be looking for healthcare coordinators or educators,” explains Canipe.

After a volunteer finds a trip aligned with their skills and interests, they will need to apply and be accepted. From there, Canipe recommends learning about the area’s politics, religion and societal norms to reduce culture shock. Knowing common phrases and words in the native language will also make the experience easier and be appreciated by locals. (Bilingual nurses can be especially valuable at helping volunteer groups be more effective and efficient.)

Logistically, nurses should plan to ensure their own health while traveling, including any medications to bring or healthcare conditions to consider. Finding supplies on location may be difficult so advance preparation is best. In addition, nurses will need to look up CDC immunization suggestions and requirements, visas and required travel documents, trip insurance, and Department of State travel warnings. Most organizations will offer packing lists and ask volunteers to fundraise for supplies.

“You’ll need to raise awareness and get your community excited. Talk to your church, your employer, your friends. It’s a community effort,” advises Canipe, whose hospital unit generously donated $500 toward her trip. “Every organization will tell you what they need. It might be basic things like blankets, clothing, masks, gloves or even over-the-counter medications. In my case, I took a whole bag of surgical supplies on the trip.”

What Happens After Coming Home

Everyone’s volunteer experience will be different, but almost every time, it will profoundly affect their world view. “There’s an important reflection stage when you return from volunteering in another country,” says Canipe. “You almost come back a different person.”

For most, the adjustment goes beyond jet lag; there’s an emotional toll as well. “You go through the whole gamut of emotions,” Canipe shares. “You feel guilty coming back to the world of plenty when the disparities are so vast.”

Realistically, processing those emotions takes time. Eventually, talking about the trip can help, allowing nurses to reflect on the lives they have changed and the impact they can continue to have by inspiring others to find their own ways of giving back. “Volunteering internationally can be a challenge in many ways, but we are capable of more than we think,” says Canipe. “Often it’s the hardest work that means the most and makes the greatest difference.”