From Brooklyn to the Vanier Nursing Exchange in Malawi

Joseph Duchelin Nursing


In the spring of 2012, five Vanier Nursing students went to Malawi to do their final Nursing internship in Malawi, Africa.

Duchelin Joseph was one of the students selected for this coveted study opportunity. For Duchelin, the trip to Africa was the culmination of a dream and ambition he’d had from the first moment he came to Vanier.

“You’ll be dead by the time you’re 21!”

Duchelin Joseph was twelve when he moved to Montreal in 1998. “I was born and raised in New York – in Brooklyn and the Bronx, probably the roughest parts of the city. At school, teachers had told me I’d be in jail by the time I was 18 and dead by 21! I decided ‘Not me!’ Then my Mom remarried and we moved to Montreal.”

From a Science DEC to nursing with some twists and turns

After attending a French high school on the South Shore, Duchelin got a Health Sciences DEC from Champlain College, then studied Biology at Concordia University for a year before undertaking studies in Nursing in upper State New York. Then he discovered the Cegep Nursing program at Vanier. “Choosing Vanier was easy. It seemed the best place to study and it had the Malawi Nursing Exchange which I truly wanted to be a part of.”

Vanier Nursing

“Vanier has been wonderful!” he says. “When I first came into the program I was welcomed instantly; not once did I feel out of place. Every time I had questions both teachers and students never hesitated to sit down with me. In the Vanier Nursing program, one of the main focuses is on the psycho-social component of nursing. That wasn’t even looked at in the U.S. Here, it’s at the heart of everything.”

“The focus is always on the nurse-patient-client relationship. You can’t just give patients medicine and expect them to get better. You must provide them with information and empower them to have as much control over their health as possible and encourage them to participate in their care.”

What led Duchelin to Nursing?

“My twin brother had a burst appendix that was not diagnosed till he was actually operated on. It took five visits to the ER for them to even give him a blood test. This resulted in emergency surgery that lead to the removal of part of his liver, gall bladder and appendix. That’s what made both of us want to become nurses.” In fact, his older sister and his mother have also become nurses.

Bringing his unique insight to nursing

Asked if his background makes him a better nurse, Duchelin says he thinks so. “I’m more empathetic toward my patients. I saw a lot of bad things growing up. By the time I was seven or eight, I’d already been shot at. But I felt sorry for the kids my age. I felt it wasn’t their fault they grew up this way. They came from an environment that didn’t encourage them to become professionals. So when I worked in the psych ward, I think my background helped me deal better with violent patients. I like working under pressure. So that’s the reason why I’m attracted to the ER and Medical/Surgical wards.”

The Malawi Nursing Exchange

The high point of his nursing studies at Vanier was the Malawi Nursing Exchange. “The experience in Malawi was exceptional. I wasn’t just the only male with four females; I was the only black male. I was expecting to see mostly female nurses in Malawi, but there were many male nurses and I thought it was very positive that it wasn’t looked upon as just a female profession.”

Inspiring others

“Another important moment came when I spoke to a group of some forty males in Makupo village. I told them my story about growing up poor in the most dangerous part of Brooklyn and the Bronx. I told them how I overcame obstacles to become a nurse and I encouraged them to pursue their own dreams. Then I asked them to share their stories and hardships. I felt I contributed something to them that night and acted as a role model. I shared my motto with them, ‘succeed or die trying’ and they loved it. “

Sharing his story

When asked about key moments in Malawi, he explains, “One evening someone shook my hand and said, ‘Mr Joseph, I’m so impressed with you, because of what you are doing.’ What he meant was it was impressive seeing a young male medical professional. I got the same reaction from other males in school and from patients. There’s a belief in Africa, ‘If it’s white, it’s right’ but when they saw that I was treated with respect like all the white people, they were inspired.”

Sponsoring a nursing student in Malawi

“As a result of that talk, Lonjezo, a young man I met there, wants to become a nurse. I told him as long as he gets accepted in the nursing school, I’ll help pay for his education. Once I’m working as a nurse, less than two days’ salary will pay a semester of his studies.”

A unique opportunity

“I never thought I’d get chosen for the Malawi Exchange – growing up like I did and being told I’d never be anything. But I got the chance to go and it shows that if you work hard you can get where you want to be. But without the support of Melodie Hicks and my teachers and fellow classmates this experience would not have been the same. Even while fundraising for our trip to Malawi everyone was supportive and did everything they could to help us raise money. This type of atmosphere is not found everywhere. This is what makes Vanier exceptional.”

Nursing in a rural and urban settings

During their stay in Malawi, the Vanier students spent three weeks at St. Andrews Hospital, a rural mission hospital, followed by three weeks at Kamuzu Hospital, the Central hospital supervised by the Kamuzu College of Nursing, University of Malawi. At Kumuzu Hospital, Duchelin worked in the burn unit, the emergency room, the intensive care unit and the step-down unit.

What did he gain from the experience in Malawi?

“Coming back from Malawi I felt privileged to live in a country where you don’t have to worry about paying for healthcare. However, not once did I feel sorry for the people of Malawi. On the contrary, I felt empowered by them. Despite the lack of resources their medical professionals, especially the nurses, improvised with what they had. If that meant they had to reuse certain medical instruments that we in Canada would throw away, that’s what they did, because it allowed them to save a life.”

“I also gained a better sense of cultural competence. Here in Montréal our clientele comes from all over the world and one of the components of cultural competence is ‘Knowledge of different cultural practices.’ In Malawi this was especially important because some of our patients sought help from a “Sing’anga” – a medicine man. Because it was important to be aware of this practice, we made sure to gather this information from patients. So I have learned to dig deeper when I am gathering health information from my clients and to respect patients who may have different health values and beliefs from my own.”

What was the most striking part of his work in the Malawi hospital?

“The E.R. – it’s what I loved and hated most. One day I had two patients two of my patients die. I had to tell a family their father and husband had died. Then I had to wrap the body and bring it to the freezer. In Montreal hospitals you never know when a dead body is moved through the halls – they use a special bed, but in Malawi, the body is wrapped and moved on a stretcher through the halls. And, everyone stands as you walk by as a sign
of respect for the dead person.”

“What I loved about the Malawi E.R. was that you had to stay on your toes. You needed to be able to assess patients quickly, pass the information to the doctors then administer the medications they prescribed. There was no time to waste. Most times I had to insert an IV line and that was not easy. It’s very hard to see a vein on dark skin. And most of the time you are dealing with four or five patients so you have to work quickly.”

Where is Duchelin headed?

“I plan to work as a nurse part-time and pursue a Bachelor of Nursing at McGill University. Nursing provides you with so many opportunities. You can go all over the world with a nursing degree. Once you’re in nursing, doors open up. You can work here or in another country or for an N.G.O.”

Final words

“You don’t have to be a doctor to have an interesting medical career. Doctors must specialize, but nurses are able to work in any area – oncology, E.R., pediatrics, medicine or surgery.”

Duchelin is clearly excited to be a nurse.

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