Kenya Chose Me: International Volunteer
The piece below was originally published in Momentum, The Magazine of the University of Mary, Winter 2019 edition
Joanna Oleksik is one of our international volunteers serving as a nurse at the Mutomo Mission Hospital in Kenya. In the following reflection, “Kenya Chose Me,” Joanna speaks about what inspired her to pursue a career in nursing and eventually to dedicate her time to serving the most vulnerable.
Joanna Oleksik knew for a long time that she wanted to be a volunteer nurse in Africa — she was just waiting for the right time to go. While at the University of Mary in 2010, she went to Guatemala on a nursing mission with the God’s Child Project, but still, she said, “I wanted more.”
Today, she is a volunteer nurse with the Catholic Medical Mission Board [CMMB] in the village of Mutomo in Kenya, both learning and teaching in a different culture.
Part of Joanna’s motivation was to ‘pay it forward.’
Her parents grew up in Poland, and she remembers her mother sharing memories of standing in long lines there with ration cards to use for basic necessities.
“When we grew up [in Williston, ND, as one of seven children], we didn’t have a lot of money and we benefited from others’ generosity. ”
She said she was drawn to the nursing program at the University of Mary because of its Catholic identity: “The University of Mary can provide a private education that’s competitive in cost.
“I feel like I got my education that prepared me for the real world as a nurse; I feel grateful for the education I received.
In the end,” Joanna said, “Kenya chose me. After I graduated I ended up working as both a nurse and a flight attendant for almost two years. By the time I was done working as a flight attendant I had visited every continent except Antarctica and Africa. I had the desire to do volunteer medical mission work as a nurse and I thought there is plenty of need in Africa.”
For inspiration, she posted a sticky note message to herself on her mirror: “Don’t be afraid. If there’s something you want to do, you just have to find it.”
Joanna chose to apply to CMMB and initially spent three months working at Our Lady of Lourdes medical mission in Kenya.
“My first weekend in Mutomo on Easter Sunday I had a “small world” experience when I realized the same order of sisters who started Our Lady of Lourdes hospital also started Mercy Hospital in Williston, ND, where I was born!”
After four months back in the U.S., she returned to Kenya in November 2018 for another six months in the hospital’s pediatrics unit.
“The mission hospital is much more like walking into a hospital here than I imagined. But you don’t find a CPAP machine, a ventilator, or IV pumps—all just drip tubing. There’s no way to do a culture and sensitivity on lab results, and the hospital is open air.
“On pediatrics we have on average 15 patients a day. During the day we have two nurses plus nursing students. At night there is one nurse. So helping fill a hole in staffing and being able to educate are two big roles.”
Joanna took guidance from a volunteer who told her to lead by example: “If you can teach by inspiring curiosity, that’s the best way to do it.”
Getting patients specialized care means the challenge of either money or disease.
“In the U.S., all kinds of interventions are available when a child struggles to breathe, but there the only option is to provide oxygen in portable tanks,” she said.
Her house is equipped with a single burner to cook on and a refrigerator, which often goes off because the electricity is unreliable. She’s just learned not to make a lot of leftovers that might go bad, she said.
“In Kenya living simply and serving others is the given,” Joanna said. “That’s what I do when I’m there. And living that way will not be easy.
“I guess that was Christ’s life too, right?”