Wanderlust deferred

An ENT nurse discovers it’s never too late to seek adventure abroad


Working as a Peace Corps volunteer was something Bianca Waller, R.N., dreamed about doing when she was a nursing student at the University of Michigan. But after graduation, her life took a different turn.

“I found a wonderful man I wanted to marry,” she said. “I definitely wanted to have children. I just didn’t know that I’d be able to keep going in that type of environment with the kind of life I wanted to have.”

The chances of going overseas seemed to become even more remote when she settled into her career. Waller discovered her passion was working as a surgical nurse in otolaryngology – commonly known as ear, nose and throat, or ENT. Although she loved being in the operating room, she thought specializing in such a way would “pigeon hole” her, moving her further from her dream of adventure in faraway lands.

That wasn’t the case.

Two years ago, she got an offer to go to Kenya with Greg Basura, one of the physicians she works with in the Department of Otolaryngology at the U-M Health System. Basura was traveling to the East African nation on a medical mission with two dozen doctors and nurses.

“He said to me, ‘You know, it would be really nice if you could help me get some instruments and supplies together. You would be more than welcome to come on the trip. Why don’t you think about it?’” Waller said.

She was interested but the timing seemed bad. She had a family at home, and the cost of travel was expensive.

But a nurse anesthetist who was also going urged Waller to join the group. The instruments used in ENT are unique, she said, and the cases are special. Waller’s skills were needed.

“I asked my husband, and he said, ‘If this is something you want to do, you should go,’” Waller said.

She went to Kenya and had an incredible experience. One month after she returned, Basura approached her again. “What do you think about Ghana?” he asked.

She responded, “I don’t know. What should I know about Ghana?”

Basura explained that the trip to the West African nation would be different – not a medical mission like the one to Kenya. The Department of Otolaryngology was setting up an educational collaboration with Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, or KATH, in Kumasi, the second-biggest city in Ghana. Waller would help teach nurses in a new otology training program.

“Is that something you would like to be part of?” Basura asked.

“That sounds amazing,” Waller answered.

The opportunity excited her because a nurse was being included in the early planning. Also encouraging was that physicians in her department had already surveyed the situation at KATH and were optimistic about the partnership.

“I never thought I’d get to be part of something like that,” she said.

Last March, she made her first trip to Ghana, and she returned for a week in late October. She worked side-by-side with her Ghanaian colleagues in the operating room, observing their routines and trading best practices.

Waller said that the nursing model at KATH is different from the one at U-M. In Ghana, they use two different teams of nurses in the operating room. One team includes nurses who work in the ENT clinic. The other team includes surgical nurses.

“This is completely different from what we do back home,” she said. “We have teams of nurses in the OR who are specific to otolaryngology. They almost never work in the hospital in-patient unit or the clinic. And the clinic nurses would only come to the OR to observe.”

Waller said that in Ghana trying to work and communicate with the two different teams was challenging at first. But she observed over time that they were able to work together and take good care of the patient.

Going to Ghana has been a great opportunity to discover the need people have for education, Waller said.

“But you have to go into it with an open mind and remember we’re not here to change everything, but to try to improve one process at a time,” she said.  “And it’s a privilege to participate in that.”

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