HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- A piercing shriek echoed along the quiet spaces of the Sinza Community Hospital. In one of the 10 beds, a woman was delivering a baby boy. Northern Kentucky University student Heather Averbeck ran to her room and peeked through the curtain.
“I saw a prolapsed umbilical cord,” Averbeck said. “All I saw was the cord coming out and I knew what that meant. When the cord compresses like that it cuts off the oxygen supply to the baby.”
The senior nursing major spent roughly five weeks in Tanzania this summer on a Study Abroad Program, arranged by NKU’s Office of Education Abroad and Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS).
On the third or fourth day, Averbeck was put to the test.
Averbeck quickly began holding pressure and called for another nurse. One of the local nurses came over then said, ‘You need to get out,’ and shooed Averbeck away. Instead, Averbeck watched as the nurse tried to maneuver the cord.
All of a sudden the nurse took her glove off, and asked Averbeck why she stopped. Averbeck told the nurse that in America the mother is rushed to the operating room to perform a C-section.
“She said, ‘Here in Tanzania, we only have one operating room and it’s occupied,’” Averbeck said. “Then she said, ‘There’s no sign of life, the baby is going to be dead.’”
Averbeck felt helpless and sad. There was nothing more she could do.
“It had already happened a couple times there, they just don’t have the resources we do,” Averbeck said. “But you want to do so much more.”
The nurse and Averbeck delivered the baby. At this point the baby had gone several minutes without oxygen, so the nurse began CPR.
“I felt like it was pointless,” Averbeck said. “I kept thinking why are we doing this, we should just let this baby go in peace.”
They took the baby to a separate room, so the other nurses could help the mother. Averbeck then took over compressions while the nurse put an oxygen mask around the baby. Shortly after, the nurse left and was replaced by a local doctor.
With her thumbs pressed firmly against the newborn, Averbeck felt a heartbeat.
“I figured it was just my heartbeat,” she said. “You’re not supposed to find pulses with your thumb, because you can feel your own pulse through your thumb.”
She checked again, placing two fingers on the baby’s chest. Averbeck did feel a heartbeat.
“My eyes automatically watered and I got chills. I was in shock,” she said.
Although she has worked at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center for three years, she felt this was an amazing learning moment.
“I really didn’t trust the nurses there, I saw them as primitive, really. I didn’t trust their abilities,” Averbeck said. “It definitely was the most humbling moment of my life. (The nurse) was the one who ultimately saved this baby and completely taught me a lesson.”
Michelle Melish, NKU's assistant director of Education Abroad, has always warned students who are interested in going abroad to be adaptable and keep an open mind.
“Things happen in the moment,” Melish said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s important to be flexible and know your place.”
Averbeck has gone through an eight-week labor and delivery clinical, and she had two and half years of nursing school. She didn’t want to step on any toes, though. She respected the Sinza Community Hospital and learned even more along the way.
“It’s not my environment, it’s not where I work. They’re the experts,” Averbeck said. “In my global health class we learned you can’t just go in with your western medicine and say this is the way it needs to be done, you can’t do that.”
Melish, after hearing about Averbeck’s trip, was very impressed with how she responded to the situation and how she didn’t take control of the delivery.
“As an American, we have our mind set that sometimes our way is the best way,” Melish said. “She kind of stayed back for most of the time then jumped in when she was needed. I think others would have interfered a lot sooner thinking that they would have known how to handle it the best.”
Mary Kishman, chairwoman of NKU's Department of Nursing, believes that global education is one of the most important things to experience within the nursing program, because it allows students to see what true poverty looks like and they are forced out of their comfort zones.
“Most of the students that go on these trips tend to be a little bolder and have a little bit more self-confidence,” Kishman said. “But not all are going to be, some will be more reserved. That’s what they’ll gain, a little more confidence.”
Averbeck said her purpose for going to Tanzania was all about learning and experience.
“No matter how people are educated or what their beliefs are, never pass up an opportunity to listen to them and learn from them,” she said. “Every person has something valuable they could teach you.”
Emily Osterholz is a student at Northern Kentucky University. This article was originally published in The Northerner, NKU’s student newspaper and website.