In the United States, pregnant women are customarily under a doctor’s care for nine months and their delivery is a thoughtful, well-planned orchestration of events. In the slums of Kenya, there is no such luxury. Mothers who even reach a clinic to deliver their babies typically have only seconds to spare.
“You have to learn how to adapt and to act quickly,” said Shauna Novobilsky, a Mercyhurst University biochemistry major and aspiring doctor who spent the month of June volunteering at a medical clinic in rural Nakuru, where she experienced the urgency – and joy – of successfully delivering three babies.
The 20-year-old senior from Perryopolis volunteered at Langalanga Health Center under the auspices of the Projects Abroad program, assisting in various departments; giving injections, removing implants, taking vitals and helping to deliver babies among her many responsibilities.
Working under pressure was not consigned to the maternity ward. “When I was helping with wound care, we had to work very fast because often the patients had let their wounds go to the point of infection,” she added.
In rural Kenya, where water-borne and mosquito-carried disease is rampant, not to mention HIV/AIDS, the leading cause of mortality among Kenyans; health care is provided by clinics and health centers that often lack modern facilities and trained staff. So, albeit a novice, Novobilsky’s help was much appreciated.
"Shauna was a model Projects Abroad volunteer in many ways,” said Projects Abroad Vice President Tom Pastorius. “Her initiative and friendliness helped her make a worthwhile contribution to the medical center where she worked. But it’s more than just that. She was an inspiring ambassador – representing herself, Projects Abroad, and her home country admirably while working in a sometimes challenging intercultural environment. She was an open-minded and patient colleague who is now missed greatly by the local community, her host family and our other volunteers still in Kenya.”
Since childhood, Novobilsky had visions of visiting Africa, seeing its broad plains and abundant wildlife. Her dream of becoming a doctor also dates back to her youth, so it seemed only natural that she would jump at an opportunity that satisfied both goals.
She said her Mercyhurst education, particularly a recent course in immunology, served her well in Kenya, and the hands-on experience was priceless. She said she learned much from the nurses who managed the clinic. “They were wonderful, so calm and supportive with the patients; they taught me much about the doctor-patient relationship and the kind of doctor I want to be,” Novobilsky said.
Of the overall experience, she added, “I knew I actually saved lives because people had such limited access to medicine. Saving the life of a baby with malaria, I thought, ‘Omigoodness, this is actually me helping someone who couldn’t have gotten help otherwise.’ I felt like I made a difference.”
Currently, Novobilsky is back at Mercyhurst working on her thesis project and applying to medical school, where she hopes to pursue a specialty in emergency surgery. She’s also creating a care package of supplies to send to the Kenyan clinic. She said she wants to continue to help across the miles and one day return.
Incidentally, she did do some traveling during her stay, experiencing the Africa that she had imagined as a child, taking a safari, sampling the culture, savoring the food and learning a bit of Swahili.
“To see the animals outside of a zoo environment was so exciting,” she said. “But, it was funny that many of the animals I was excited to see – like a zebra – the Kenyans just took for granted.”
Not so different, she said, from how we in the states take for granted our blessings. “It showed me how lucky we are as a country and a people and it taught me never to take anything for granted.”