Emily Bowdren is a third year Adult Nursing student at UEA. As a mature student, she juggles being a parent with the demands of the course and placements. But Emily has always been keen to ‘give back’ to society, so she, her husband Gerry (who is also an experienced nurse and Advanced Care Practitioner) and their children joined the charity, Big Life, in Calcutta.
As soon as she stepped off the plane into 40 degree humidity, Emily recognised the huge challenge ahead of her. She knew that her mission, to provide much needed healthcare in such a different culture would be overwhelming, and that both she and her family needed to focus on the positives outcomes – the individuals they could help, rather than the masses that they could not.
With just two and a half weeks to make a difference, Emily and Gerry worked with Big Life to set up health clinics in remote villages. They spent three days in one small village, then three days in another, and so on, working 12-hour shifts with barely enough time to wash or eat. They worked tirelessly to see over 90 people a day (hundred’s queued), treating everything from heart murmurs to skin infections, and they still had to turn people away - the need was so great. Emily comments, “It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.”
She adds, “The experience taught me so much, not just about health conditions, but about personal values too. I am so lucky to be able to do this course. I am so lucky to have been born in the UK with the best health system in the world.”
An important lesson
One of the hardest situations Emily faced was being asked to treat a baby who was medically well but undernourished, with sagging skin and a head too big for her body. The mother did not have enough food to be able to make the nutrient-rich breast milk that her baby needed to grow. Emily explains that this is where her education and NHS clinical practice really made a difference. The NHS core values had taught her and Gerry to value ethics and treat every individual with the same degree of kindness and humanity. She could not feed a starving family – only longer term help and food would help this baby so she had to tell the mother that she couldn’t do anything to help them. There were many similar stories where people had been routinely prescribed the wrong drugs – a huge financial burden for people who could barely afford to eat – the couple did their best to triage and offer advice wherever they could, but ultimately they could not help everyone.
“This trip was just a recce,” says Emily. Using over £4,000 of their own money, and an alumni grant from UEA, they were able to treat hundreds of people – but it also exposed the extent of the need, and what else Emily and Gerry could do to help the people of Calcutta.
Seeing a culture without the core principles of the NHS has left a lasting impression on Emily and Gerry, driving them to continue to help others.
The couple plan to return to Calcutta next year with more medicine and a plan to treat longer term conditions, such as high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. Emily hopes to be able to work in A&E when she graduates, and to volunteer for small charities in the future. She is passionate about becoming an Adult Nurse, and wants to make sure that her training helps those less fortunate than herself.
If you would like to sponsor Emily on her next trip, St Thomas Norwich is collecting donations. Please state 'Kolkata' when making donations. You can find out more about Emily’s experience and also sponsor her next trip to Kolkata.