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Reflections on a Volunteer Medical Trip and Tips for Preparation

  • February 01, 2017
  • Asia and Eurasia, Medical Outreach Exchange, Preparation

Debbie Urbanek, RN

Debbie Urbanek is a registered nurse and has 35 years’ experience in the medical field. She was working at the Wisconsin Heart Hospital when she decided to volunteer abroad on a medical outreach mission in Nepal.

For a long time it was my dream to serve on a medical mission in a developing country. I wanted to volunteer my nursing skills while learning from others around the world. I was drawn to Nepal because of its rich culture and breathtaking landscapes. Nepal is also well known as home to Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, and boasts to be the birthplace of Buddha. I was excited to begin my adventure in a country with such a great cultural heritage and multiethnic traditions.

I packed my bags and carried an additional 50 pounds of medical supplies to donate to the remote health station I would be working at knowing that there was a great need. Only a few days after I arrived, a deadly earthquake hit Nepal. It was the worst natural disaster in almost 100 years, killing and injuring almost 9,000 people. I quickly realized the medical supplies I brought were not enough.

The country was in utter chaos. After witnessing the devastation of the earthquake first hand, I knew my trip to Nepal would not end when I came home. Since returning back to the U.S., it has been my mission to get much needed medical supplies to the people of Nepal. Through much research, communication, and collaboration, my initial 50 pounds of supplies has turned into 40,000.

I have learned that no matter where you go in the world, we all deserve to have the right to basic health care and as a global society we should strive to achieve that goal. If you find yourself wanting to join a medical trip, there are important steps you can take before you depart and on your return, to increase your impact.


One of the most important things I did to prepare for my volunteer assignment was to do diligent research. I spoke with others and researched multiple agencies offering volunteer opportunities. I found IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) to be the best fit for my personal and professional goals. The company accommodated not only my budget and the times I needed, but they also offered a lot of in-country support, as well as sustainable and meaningful projects.

IVHQ, located in New Zealand, was able to communicate with the Nepalese remote health posts and relay messages back to me regarding the medical supplies that would be most needed. I knew I had the appropriate resources for the local community when I arrived.


Remember that often in the country you will be volunteering in there is a scarcity of basic supplies and the things which in the U.S. are sterile and disposable, in countries like Nepal, are by necessity reusable and only clean. Researching what is needed in-country and making sure the organization you are volunteering with communicates with the local community you will be volunteering in, ensures the resources are needed on the ground.

Think about how you can increase your impact before you leave. Look at your field, the organization or medical institute you work for, or charities in your country and see if there is any way they can support your mission. There are a number of organizations that can help you with supplies. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and give them a ring.

Before I departed I contacted my hospital’s sponsored non-profit organization, Hospital Sisters’ Mission Outreach (HSMO). This organization is a medical surplus recovery organization that collects, repairs, packages and supplies equipment to hospitals around the world. I gave them a list of what the Nepalis needed and picked up 50 pounds of supplies from the warehouse and neatly stuffed them into one duffle bag.

When I unpacked my supplies and pulled out a dozen bandages, scissors, packs of pre-folded gauze squares, catheters, syringes, forceps, needles, the medical director’s eyes started to get bigger and bigger. His reaction left no doubt that arranging to bring medical supplies with me was worth the effort as they were much needed and put to good use.

Network and Communicate

Think about how to raise funds and awareness, what you can do to stand apart from the rest, and why people should help your cause.

Upon returning home I became very active in researching ways in which I could be of further help. I called the executive director of HSMO and told her my story. I described the scarcity of medical supplies before the earthquake and how after the earthquake these supplies would be critical. She agreed to help and we organized two fundraisers to help raise money for the transportation of supplies to this landlocked country.

I also arranged for a videographer to travel to Nepal to make a short documentary to help raise awareness among our fundraisers. His film generated the largest donations every seen by HSMO.


Since I returned from Nepal my project has taken on a snowball effect. I originally signed up for a two week experience. It has been over a year now and I continue to “volunteer” for Nepal.

Advocating for your organizations and/or your goals can really go a long way. Don’t wait for people to come to you. Go out and make people hear you. Tell them your story, ask for suggestions, create ideas and spread them.

That single trip taught me so many life lessons. One of the most important lessons I learned is that one person can make a difference. I learned that when I went out of my comfort zone only an inch, someone else was able to take that inch and stretch it into a foot, and then someone else stretched that foot into a mile. Eventually that mile stretched 7,529 miles all the way to Nepal! People can and do make a difference.