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on a positive impact

Three Nurses on the Front Lines of Leadership, Innovation, and Resilience


On May 12, 2018, we join health advocates around the world in celebrating International Nurses Day. In continuation of our 10 Years of Trust campaign, we dedicate the month of May to the remarkable nurses transforming the front lines of care across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA).

Nurses and midwives make up 85 percent of the total health care workforce in East Africa. Yet there are still too few to fully meet the needs of local communities. Across East Africa, there is less than one nurse per 1,000 people. Due to limited resources, nurses are often the only health professional people in remote areas have contact with, and end up serving in roles far beyond their traditional responsibilities.

Since 2001, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with Aga Khan University School of Nursing and Midwifery (AKU-SONAM) in East Africa to provide nurses with scholarships in order to improve access to quality education. AKU-SONAM classes build nurses’ capacity for resilience, innovation, and leadership to respond to local needs. To date, 2,388 students have graduated in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and gone on to reach more than two million patients.

Historically, many highly trained nurses leave East Africa in search of better opportunities, draining health systems of their best talent. In contrast, 90 percent of AKU-SONAM graduates remain in the region post-graduation, playing an important role in advancing regional health systems. Empowered with new skills, AKU-SONAM nurses are better able to persevere in difficult work settings, and initiate solutions to expand access to health care in their communities.

Without a doubt, investing in nurses is necessary to achieving universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals. Meet three AKU-SONAM graduates and Johnson & Johnson scholarship recipients who embody the resilience, leadership, and innovation needed to create a future where everyone has access to the health care that they need.

Hannah Kirungu, RN

Hannah Kirungu was first trained as a nurse in Muranga, Kenya, in 1998, and worked as a nurse throughout the Central Province before graduating from AKU-SONAM in 2015. She says the program helped her overcome challenges she faced as a nurse at the Mkwiro Dispensary on Wasini Island, a community off the coast of Southeast Kenya of about 1,200 people.

“Before AKU-SONAM, I never thought about how all of a community’s challenges are connected. Through the program, I learned to see health care as treating all the problems facing a community, rather than just the symptoms of the patient in front of you. Serving in a remote community like Wasini Island, I had to ask myself, how do I treat patients when the boats bringing medical supplies are unreliable? How do I serve the community when I barely have the staff and supplies to meet my own clinic’s needs?

AKU-SONAM gave me the skills to persevere past these problems to innovate solutions, often creating guidelines from scratch. For example, before I joined, we were only delivering emergency births and sending expectant mothers to the mainland. Though my training at AKU-SONAM, I could train staff and build capacity on the island, and now the dispensary delivers two to three non-emergency births each month.

I’ve found that the best nurse is one that is empowered, confident and assertive. We are a testimony of the program’s success – we are all making a difference.”

Pendo Bukoli, RN, BScN

Since graduating from AKU-SONAM in 2006, Pendo Bukoli, a nurse and midwife, has established 22 cervical cancer screening sites in the Pwani and Mtwara regions of Tanzania. She now supervises these sites and provides training through an organization called Tanzania Health Promotion Support.

“Cervical cancer prevention is a big priority for me as we have one of the greatest opportunities to impact women’s health. With prevention, we can teach an entire community about the disease.

One of our biggest challenges is communicating the importance of routine care to our patients, especially when patients come from different communities than our staff. Through a study we conducted, we discovered that women chose not to get screened in part because of religious or cultural customs.

We already closely monitor staff to make sure they consider the customs of the community they serve, but now we are developing an outreach program specifically for this challenge. We will work with women leaders within communities to talk to other women at ngomas, or traditional dances, about the importance of getting screened, and also to build trust.

Because of my training at AKU-SONAM, I now have the leadership and management skills to take on more responsibility, manage projects and staff, and imagine solutions to challenges like these.”

Jobiso Ghafo, RN

Jobiso Ghafo graduated from AKU-SONAM in 2015, and currently heads the maternal unit and the Comprehensive Counseling Unit at the Kipini Dispensary in Kenya.

“I am actually the oldest employee at the Dispensary – I have worked here for 26 years. But with the computer skills I learned at AKU-SONAM, I can now teach other departments information technology skills, and also manage the data entry for the maternal and child health department. Our dispensary serves over 14,000 people, and nurses treat up to 150 patients each day, so I am really grateful for those skills. And so is my staff, they call me the ‘IQ Champion’!

I use the leadership skills I learned to make my employees feel comfortable coming to me for counsel, and to find solutions even with our very limited resources. For example, before my graduation from AKU-SONAM, team members didn’t have the training to provide adequate treatment and so we often had to send patients away to larger, better-resourced clinics. However, by using what I learned about monitoring patients, training staff, and managing the clinic, we can now handle most complications ourselves and only send the most urgent cases away.

AKU-SONAM is different from other programs because it has modern teaching and learning resources. But it didn’t just give me technical skills – I also now have the self-confidence to handle whatever challenges we face in the maternity department.”


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