She planned to be a doctor, but nursing was her passion


  • Health
  • Sunday, 19 May 2019

Nacanaynay with undernourished children at an MSF therapeutic feeding centre in South Sudan in 2017. — MSF

When I was young, I would always ask my mom for medical toy sets. I had kidney basins and forceps of various colours and sizes, and a couple of stethoscopes.

During playtime, my friends and I would pretend that we were in a hospital; they made up physical complaints that I was to check and cure.

I wanted to become a doctor ... or so I thought.

I took up nursing in college, seeing it as the most direct route to medicine. (Nacanaynay is from the Philippines, which follows the American tertiary system where medical degrees are considered postgraduate degrees.)

But I took a detour along the way. It started when I first donned my nurse’s cap and uniform halfway through nursing school.

I looked at myself in the mirror and felt that I was exactly where I had to be.

Then there was the profound joy I felt spending four to six hours in the hospital with patients.

I felt fulfilled checking and getting vital signs, and in making sure the patients took their prescribed medication.

The original plan was a seamless transition to medical school once I become an RN (registered nurse). But I thought I’d try nursing for a year.

My first assignments were in the operating theatre (OT) and delivery room (DR), assisting surgeons with instruments during operations, and working with midwives in monitoring women in labour.

It was stressful, but also exciting. So when my self-imposed one-year limit was about to end, I decided to extend.

I went to the Middle East. That time, all the nurses I knew were heading there, so off I went, setting aside my medical school plans once more.

I worked in a surgical department in Libya. My knowledge and skills were challenged, but I took these as learning opportunities to professionally grow.

What I loved in the surgical department was the interaction with patients – something that was limited in the OT and DR because patients there are usually sedated.

The kisses and endless “thank yous” from patients were especially motivating.

I was likewise fortunate to work with dedicated colleagues who treated me like family.

Then, the 2011 uprising (against the four-decade rule of Muammar Gaddafi) happened. I wanted to stay, but the situation caused my mom tremendous worry. I went home to relieve my family’s worries.

I returned to Libya a few months later and stayed there until 2013.

I then left the Middle East to pursue an opportunity in Canada. I really wasn’t keen on it, but again, everybody wanted to go there, so I decided to explore it myself.

As I was waiting for my visa, Typhoon Yolanda ravaged the Visayas region in the Philppines.

I immediately browsed the internet for organisations that needed volunteers and came across an announcement from Doctors Without Borders, known in French as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

I took my chances and applied to volunteer with them because I wanted to see myself as a nurse in a shirt and cargo pants.

Then it hit me. This is why I did not pursue medicine. I really wanted to be a nurse. This is who I am.

I got a call from MSF a week later and I was ecstatic. My family, on the other hand, was horrified. This brought back memories of their anxiousness while I was in Libya.

It was a difficult decision, but I had to put my family first. I went to Canada to study French and take up bridging courses for nursing – these are requisites to obtain a permit to work as a nurse in Canada.

To finance my studies, I worked in nursing homes and took jobs as a private help nurse.

For once, everybody had peace of mind except for me. Suddenly, I was not the person I envisioned myself to be.

Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely cared for my patients in Canada and I appreciated their daily gratitude. But I was restless. I was at crossroads.

I opened up about my dilemma to my favourite patient, an 86-year-old Jewish woman who always had something wise to say.

She told me: “If you have a dream, don’t hesitate to make a step towards its achievement.”

After nine months of traversing a relatively smooth road, I made a U-turn and joined MSF in 2015.

Since then, I’ve been sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

I have been out in the bushes working, teaching, mentoring and inspiring others to see beyond the nurse’s cap and scrub suits.

I found contentment and I’m still learning a lot. I realised that sometimes, you just have to go beyond the borders of your personal plans and let the world take you for a ride with its far-reaching wings.

I am now right where I want to be and always have been.

Ji Nacanaynay currently works as a field human resources officer for MSF Hong Kong. She is responsible for the welfare of nurses like her, and others who save lives even under the most challenging settings.


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