Carol Carson transformed training for student nurses, improved communities' patient care and trained midwives in life-saving skills, before being honoured by the Queen in 2020.
In 2007, Carol Carson began her first stint as a VSO volunteer, working in Malawi as a clinical teacher. Her role was to upskill nursing trainers and train student nurses in mental health issues.
“It was a harsh environment for the students,” Carol remembers. “We saw patients assaulting each other; bruises would appear on them overnight.”
Despite the challenging circumstances, Carol was able to change the way the students saw mental health patients.
Before, the nurses wouldn’t communicate with patients.
“I taught the students the importance of really listening to patients to understand their symptoms,” Carol says. “This is especially important in mental health."
"You've got to see the humour in it"
A year later, she decided to share her skills elsewhere, in the region that later gained independence as South Sudan, again supporting with training in mental health.
"There were goats running around the hospital grounds, and vultures too. One night a snake had to be removed from the ward! To cope with things like that you've got to see the humour in it."
Fortunately, Carol, originally from Edinburgh, could draw on 25 years of experience working as an NHS nurse.
Despite the obstacles, as a VSO volunteer, she made huge strides in addressing the skills gaps of student nurses and promoting infection-control measures. For the first time, students received interactive lessons.
"These nurses have only ever learnt by rote," Carol says. "I was able to improve their learning experience."
Her efforts didn't go unnoticed. "Shortly before I left, I gave the students an exam. They all passed, but one or two wrote things at the bottom of their papers saying how much they appreciated me and how much they'd miss me."
Pit latrines and backyard gardens
The next year, Carol received another call from VSO. She was asked if she’d consider volunteering on a new project, this time improving maternal and neonatal health, returning once more to Malawi. She leapt at the chance to work with local health centres and community leaders, helping them to understand and implement low-cost solutions to improve healthcare.
Carol and her team dug pit latrines and set up hand-washing stations. She also encouraged women in the community to start backyard gardens. This meant that mothers could give their children a more varied diet and grow a little more food than they needed, to bring in extra income.
Seeing the bigger picture
In 2016, Carol took up her fourth placement, this time in Myanmar.
There, Carol joined a group of volunteers as part of a joint project with the non-profit health organisation Jhpiego, with the aim of overhauling teaching techniques at a midwifery college. It was common practice for teachers to read aloud from out-of-date books while their students listened and took notes.
“They weren’t learning, they were remembering,” Carol says. “They weren’t learning to think critically or see the bigger picture.”
So, Carol and her fellow volunteers introduced more hands-on teaching methods, such as using a water bottle to demonstrate how to put on a female condom.
Carol Carson, VSO volunteer
"We could have sent a pile of teaching equipment to Myanmar but without upskilling the tutors there's no point."
Carol's placement in Myanmar ended in 2017, but the impact she has had on students will no doubt live on. Last year she was awarded an OBE.
"When I won the OBE I thought it was a hoax," she says. "People don't do VSO to get awards, but it's exceptionally nice to be recognised. I feel privileged to have done what I have with VSO.
"It's not just about the people who you are training, but the people they're providing care to. I hope I've helped to improve the care that patients in these communities receive."
Leaving a lasting impact
The skills that Carol Carson shared in communities will leave a lasting impact, but her placement was only made possible by the help of supporters like you.
Just £10 a month could help pay for a midwife volunteer to train local nurses and help reduce infant mortality.
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