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Massive rewards on placement in Sierra Leone

"In low-resource settings, it’s possible to make a big impact quickly."

Dr Niall Conroy has just completed a 12 month placement in Bo City, Sierra Leone where he was volunteering as a child and maternal health trainer. 

I applied to volunteer to work with VSO in November 2012 and the following March I was en route to Bo city in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Working in a post-conflict fragile state is a challenging experience. The health system was decimated during a 10 year civil war, which ended in 2002 and recovery has been slow. I was recruited as a maternal and child health trainer and my mandate was to train local staff in the use of simple tools and techniques in order to help address the huge problem of newborn, infant and maternal deaths in the country.

I’m based in Bo city and do most of my teaching in the local government hospital and the local nursing school. There are lots of lectures to give, but much of the work involves “on the job” training, where I supervise staff in their day to day work. There are huge gaps in the education system here, so another part of my job is curriculum development, as many of the practices being taught are out of date. One of the big successes during my time in Bo was the development of a one day newborn resuscitation course for healthcare workers.

Long-lasting results

Sierra Leone has the highest newborn death rate in the world, and there’s a significant body of research showing that good newborn resuscitation skills are an important tool in the battle against neonatal deaths. Before I developed the course, only 14% of staff in maternity referral units could resuscitate a sick newborn. Currently, this course has been delivered to more than 100 health workers, who are now using those skills in their workplace. I’ve developed an instructor training course, where I mentor local staff to deliver the same training after I’ve left, in order to build in a degree of sustainability into the programme. 

Challenges on placement

Volunteering in a country like Sierra Leone takes a degree of preparation and research. Prospective volunteers shouldn’t underestimate how tough it can be to live without electricity and running water for long periods. Living alone in a very different culture can also be quite difficult. You also need to be able to work independently and on your own initiative, as the scope of projects often changes, due to the environment you work in.

You see things that can be hard to take, such as newborns dying from very preventable and very treatable diseases, and often you feel very helpless. But the rewards can be immense. In low-resource settings, it’s possible to make a big impact quickly. People are always grateful that you’re there and are usually very enthusiastic to learn from you, and there’s nothing better than teaching a captive audience. 

Recommendations to people thinking about volunteering

I would recommend that anybody thinking about volunteering should do their homework first. But if you think you can live without the creature comforts of home, then there’s a world of people out there just waiting for you to come and help.

You can find out more about volunteering overseas with VSO Ireland by looking at latest vacancies or signing up to the monthly newsletter.

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