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Amidst food shortages, politicial upheaval and terrorist attacks, SU graduate Breana McKinnon nurses Kenyan villiagers back to health


Staff Writer

Armed with a degree in nursing, Salisbury University 2013 graduate Breana McKinnon let her passion for volunteering take her where most SU graduates have not reached: Kenya.

Ending up in Kenya was not just fortunate happenstance, though; McKinnon began exploring options for helping people through her enthusiasm for biology in high school.

Her interests were sparked, first, through hearing about her cousin-in-law who served as a teacher in Africa for two years through the Peace Corps. Although by that time she had not actually met her cousin-in-law, the stories that were relayed back to her were enough to inspire.

“Hearing about her experience opened my mind to the idea of using volunteer work to make this world a more positive place than I found it,” McKinnon said.

McKinnon’s first taste of volunteering through nursing came through studying abroad in India and Africa during college. With these, her perception about the state of healthcare throughout the world was changed. She observed that in many places, many people lack the basic necessities Americans rely on.

“I saw firsthand that not everyone had access to proper health facilities, education, or even clean drinking water or food,” McKinnon said. “Recourses such as electricity, gloves, or the ability to sterilize instruments were scarce.”

Lack of resources was not the only thing that McKinnon came face-to-face with on her journeys, either. On these trips, she also saw people suffering from diseases American healthcare had eliminated or minimized drastically, including Tuberculosis, Polio, Malaria, HIV and more.

From these experiences, she said, her life changed “educationally and spiritually.”

After graduation, believing that aiding people throughout the world through nursing was her purpose in life, McKinnon researched volunteer organizations and accepted a job in Oct. 2013 with the Catholic Medical Mission Board.

“This organization possessed the same vision I had for the world,” she said. “‘A world in which every human life is valued and quality health care is available to all.’”

Before heading to Kenya, McKinnon had to spend one Nov week in New York City and New Jersey for orientation with other volunteers working for the CMMB and then on Nov. 28, 2013, Thanksgiving Day, McKinnon left for Kenya for one year.

Despite her excitement for starting this new part of her life, she held onto some strong fears.

“As a new nurse I worry that I will not be good enough or experienced enough… I won’t be what they need,” McKinnon blogged shortly before leaving. “But then I think about how much I loved my past experiences with international health care. I also think about where I’m going and the lack of health workers and resources. Because of that I need to push aside my worries and be confident in my education, for there is a reason I have been lead down this path.”

When McKinnon first got to Kenya, she spent a few days in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, meeting colleagues and touring. Soon after, though, she moved to Tabaka in western Kenya where she started working at Tabaka Mission Hospital.

Upon arriving, she was placed in the maternity ward, a division of a hospital McKinnon had not expected to work in.

“I never really thought I was ‘cut out’ for mommies and babies,” McKinnon said. “Seeing life happen in front of you is truly a miracle, it’s the most amazing experiences to be a part of a healthy birth. Unfortunately, mother and baby death are far too common here.”

In America, roughly 650 women, of about four million, die every year because of complications in pregnancy or delivery (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); for every 1,000 babies born each year (2009-2012), only six die before reaching their first birthday (The World Bank).  However in Kenya, that number is much larger.

The first time McKinnon lost a baby, she was surprised by what had happened in the hospital.

“Juliet was born 30 weeks gestation,” McKinnon explained in a blog post. “Despite being premature she lived four weeks and five days. In fact, she was getting strong(er) and healthier by the day. Then, I arrived to work this morning and baby Juliet had died. The nurse had no explanation as to what happened, in fact looking through all the notes baby Juliet had not been monitored all night. The doctor believes the mother fell asleep on her.”

“Seeing this,” she continued, “I am beginning to realize why I am here. To educate and hopefully set a good example as to what it means to monitor, access and care for your patients.”

After a few months, McKinnon was transferred to the female surgical ward.

While McKinnon was delivering babies, performing c-sections, and aiding her female patients, she and her colleagues were also being affected by political events in Kenya, such as Nelson Mandela’s death, Kenya’s Independence Day on Dec. 12. and a country-wide health care strike. All of which, McKinnon said, affected the health of Kenyans and the hospital she worked at.

The most influential event, though, was the strike. It began on Dec. 10 over disputes between healthcare workers and the Kenyan government about the devolution of healthcare services and whether the salaries of workers should be paid by the government. The strike has, even still, caused many hospitals to close and turn out patients, which in turn has caused Tabaka Mission Hospital to take in many more patients.

“Although I enjoy how busy we are, I feel there is something morally wrong with this situation,” McKinnon said “I can only look at this situation from an objective point of view, and try not to take sides.”

Not all of the challenges she has experienced have stemmed from actual nursing or political events.

“I am also trying really hard to learn Kiswahili,” McKinnon said. “Partly because I want to be able to communicate with my patients, but also because a couple of the nursing students refuse to speak to me in English, they say it’s for my own good.”

Sometimes even Kiswahili does not help her, though.

“Rounds are usually in Kiswahili, broken English, one of the 42 tribal languages, or all of the above,” McKinnon said. “Most of my patients don’t speak any English and some don’t even speak Kiswahili. However, it’s amazing what a smile and a handshake can do to build a rapport with patients.”

In addition to these challenges, McKinnon has had to deal with theft of food, toiletries, and clothing, a fungal infection, and mosquitoes carrying the threat of malaria.

Recently, and more seriously, she has experienced tumult in Kenya with the attack at the Westgate shopping mall, the Mombasa Church shooting, demonstrations and tribal disputes.  She and her hospital have remained unharmed, though.

Although the days in the hospital can be difficult, McKinnon has not lost her sense of purpose.    “Sometimes I get so down because I feel like I’m constantly fighting,” McKinnon said, “fighting ignorance, and fighting the situation. Never have I walked away from work completely content with my day. I always feel like more could have been done. It’s draining to be fully aware that if people were better educated, resources were accessible, and money was not an issue the outcome of many of my patients may be different.”

But, this has not gotten her down:

“I do love these people, I do love my work, and I am here to help in any way I can. I can’t lose enthusiasm,” McKinnon

To get away from day-to-day frustrations, McKinnon has spent much of her time exploring Kenya.  In different cities she has visited museums, bartered in markets, visited wildlife preservations, visited orphanages, ate at one of the 50 best restaurants in the world called Carnivore, and experienced reverse culture shock in Nairobi because of how developed it is compared to the village she lives in.

“In Nairobi you can get anything you want,” McKinnon said, “while in Tabaka people are currently stocking up on food because they know within a short few months there will be the annual food shortage they have grown accustom to.”

Her favorite place to go, though, is Lake Victoria.

“Lake Victoria is literally heaven on earth to me in Kenya, I wish I could stay on the lake all the time,” she said.

Although she is in her fourth month in Kenya, McKinnon still has over half a year left to serve and has already made plans to continue her work.

“I see so many volunteers come and go in such a short time,” she explained. “Although their work is appreciated, they are soon forgotten, as if they never even came. Seeing this makes me more determined than ever not to be one of those types of volunteers. I love nursing but I want to do something more. At this point I believe the only way is through education. Ironically, I was just offered a clinical instructor position at Tabakas School of nursing. I have already accepted the position.”

Throughout her journey, McKinnon has kept a blog entitled “Lets get lost in the world together,” detailing her work, travels, and experiences through words and pictures at She is also currently collecting donations through the CMMB to reach her goal of $5,000 that support her traveling, living, and working.

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