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When Thanadol Prasertsung came to Canada from Thailand five years ago, he had no idea he would have the chance to return to his village one day to care for people as a nursing student.
In fact, at the time he didn’t envision he could become a nurse at all. But the guidance of some good teachers inspired more than just a journey home. It opened up an all new path in life for Prasertsung. It also created an opportunity for his fellow Okanagan College nursing students – one that has never been seen before in a Practical Nursing diploma program in Canada.
“I was working at an Assisted Living home as a housekeeper, when I first moved to Canada,” explains Prasertsung. “I saw a Care Aide come to take care of the elderly. It inspired me, so I started in the Health Care Assistant program at the College. Then, one of my instructors told me that she saw me as a Licenced Practical Nurse instead. From her thoughts and my thoughts, I told myself ‘I could do this, even though English is my second language. If I try hard, I can succeed and be an LPN’.”
As the semesters went by, Prasertsung couldn’t help but think about how what he was learning could benefit so many people where he grew up. It sparked the idea to travel back over a summer and volunteer in a clinic.
“I was born in northeastern province of Thailand. People were living in very poor conditions and could not access proper healthcare. I thought I could bring what I learned from the College back to my country to where I am from, because I want to make change for people in rural areas who cannot access healthcare.”
When he shared the idea with his classmates, the group began to dream even bigger.
“One of my friends talked to my instructor. She made everything come true. She put so much effort in to make this project a reality.”
That instructor was Lisa Matthews, Chair of the LPN program at Okanagan College.
“These trips are typical in Bachelor of Science programs in university,” says Matthews. “But to our knowledge it hasn’t been done before as a practicum experience in a Practical Nursing program in Canada.”
“When the idea was born, we weren’t sure if it would be possible, nor were we even thinking of it as fitting into the curriculum, but, when we explored it further, we saw how it actually really perfectly captured the objectives of our program. From then on, we started to build the relationships we’d need to make it happen.”
Prasertsung helped with that. He connected Matthews with her counterparts in the Faculty of Nursing at Mahasarakham University in Talat, about 470 kilometres Northeast of Bangkok. She and Lisa Kraft, Associate Dean of Science, Technology and Health travelled to Thailand to build the relationship and lay the groundwork for the practicum.
From there, the next hurdle – and not a small one – was fundraising.
“Students went to extensive fundraising efforts,” notes Matthews. “There was a dinner and silent auction in Armstrong that was hugely successful. A family of one of our students hosted it. The students also did bottle drives. They pulled out all the stops to make this happen. There was also support from the College to make it a reality.”
Matthews and fellow instructor Amy Bailey secured funding from OC, including the Derek Cook Innovation Award, an award recognizing a long-time College business professor who was dedicated to opening up overseas study and teaching opportunities for OC students and faculty.
Finally, after extensive planning and fundraising, the group of nine students and two instructors departed for Thailand on Oct. 17. They spent the next two weeks at clinical sites in the villages of Khamriang and Tha-khonyang.
“Their clinical setting was within a primary care unit (PCU), with half the day in the clinic working with drop-ins. In the afternoon they would do house visits in the community (community care). We also helped with annual health assessments of monks in the temples, and as an interesting aside, we learned that nurses must remain kneeling the entire time when delivering healthcare to the monks within the temples,” explains Matthews.
“They also had the opportunity to use their theoretical work from Canada to teach health promotion activities at a daycare with preschool kids. The students had developed this teaching material in their previous PN course considering the health issues of the Thai population, and were able to apply and evaluate these teaching plans in the Thai preschools, teaching children with interpreters, which was very impactful for them.”
The diversity of ages and backgrounds, along with cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic differences, all contributed to a transformative learning experience.
“Observing day-to-day life in the clinic for the nurses, being involved in the programs they hold at the clinics, our teaching days for the children in the villages, being involved in the elderly class and seeing how they support health and activity for the elderly – all of it was a wonderful experience,” says student Courtney Schiller.
“I feel very blessed to have been able to be part of this trip. It was a really eye-opening experience and gave me a new perspective on how it feels to be immersed into a culture as a nurse.”
As Schiller notes, it’s a learning experience she and others won’t soon forget. Nor is it one they’ll have trouble applying to their practice after graduation.
“One thing I brought back with me for my future nursing practice is how important cultural humility is as a nurse,” notes Schiller. “Being able to use my knowledge of cultural safety and humility was an important thing for me to experience. I have traveled before, but this experience was much different. I really got to experience the Thai culture and traditions and it was a really amazing thing to be a part of and experience.”
It’s a statement echoed by Schiller’s classmate Madison Catt, who plans to continue her studies to become a Registered Nurse.
“I took back with me the strong sense of community,” says Catt. “The community and nurses were one. Stronger together. There was no fear towards the healthcare system. My classmates and I also got to see first-hand how much a language barrier can affect messages, practice and directions. At times, this language barrier became frustrating, even with interpreters, and so I will always have this in mind when caring for anyone who doesn't speak English as their first language.”
The students penned a blog about their experience. Click here to see photos and follow their experiences.
“We could not be more proud of our students and instructors for having the vision for this project and for being so tenacious in their efforts to make it a reality,” says Yvonne Moritz, Dean of Science, Technology and Health at the College. “Cross-cultural opportunities like these are invaluable for students. I’m sure the experiences they had – working alongside fellow nurses, in such different settings as they may encounter here – will only serve them well in practice and enrich the great quality of education they’re receiving from our nursing faculty at the College.”
As for Thanadol Prasertsung, the originator of the idea, his sights are now set on graduation. He’s on track to complete his program in December. He also hopes the opportunity he had is one that could happen again in future for the students who will follow in his footsteps.
“I feel like my dream came true. To go back to where I came from, to make a difference, or at least help out, I am thankful for this experience. I hope we will continue this project for future students and I will support it however I can, as I want the next group of students to have this amazing lifetime experience.”