What The People of Uganda Taught Me About Relationships


January 25, 2019

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My name is Rozalyn. I never really liked it, but my mom said she wanted a name that was pretty but had powerful letters (Y and Z) in it. I’ve tried to live my life with that motto: Be kind and pretty, but back that up with power.  

I will say, though, that I’m just an ordinary person. I knew I wanted to be an RN when I grew up.

There was something about a critical-thinking job that also allows for kindness and comfort. I applied to colleges that could spit me out in four years with my Bachelors in Nursing, and I was lucky enough to get into the University of San Francisco.  

As I worked my way through college, I started thinking about what kind of a nurse I wanted to be.  That seems to be everyone’s question when you’re a student. The truth was, I just wanted to be a good one. I didn’t have a specialty in mind, just a fire in me to help people.   

And as graduation day grew closer, the prospect of finding a hospital that would hire a green new grad grew less and less likely. So I started thinking about volunteering. I could use my freshly gained medical knowledge in a place that really needed me. And it came to me.

If I don’t get a job in the states, I’m going to Uganda! I’m not sure why, but Uganda was always on my heart.  

But before I could make any plans, by the grace of God, a hospital wanted to hire me! I started working at a beautiful facility in Walnut Creek, CA. I married my college sweetheart, started building a 401K, and had a baby. The thought of traveling to Uganda on a medical mission faded, as new goals and dreams emerged. But I always felt that something was missing. That is, until ten years later, when I got a phone call that changed my world.

One Saturday evening in September 2018, my husband’s cousin and her best friend, a neonatal nurse practitioner, came over for dinner. As we got to know each other, I found out that this new acquaintance had volunteered in Uganda—and I couldn’t ask her enough questions. Two weeks later, she called and said they were short-staffed for their December volunteer group and asked if I wanted to go with her to Uganda as an RN. My husband and I both shouted YES! Without hesitation, I applied to go.

As time went on, I started to feel guilty and a little remorseful about what I was “giving up” by going there over the holidays. I felt guilty leaving my daughter. I wanted to see my new kitchen finished since we’d been living in a remodel for weeks. I was irritated that we had to postpone trying to have baby #2 and that I was risking getting Zika or some other ailment that would delay MY life plan.

But I packed my bag and made the twenty-four-hour trek to the other side of the world. And I couldn’t be happier that I did. So many friends asked me if I was really ready to leave my daughter for a week and a half. “What if something bad happens to you?” they’d ask.  

My answer was always the same. I’m definitely not OK leaving her. I’d probably never forgive myself if anything happened to me, knowing that it was my decision to go. And I felt that guilt throughout my trip. But my husband continued to be supportive and kept saying that it was just the fear of the unknown.  

After arriving at the first hotel in Entebbe, Uganda, and seeing the SWARMS of mosquitoes, I swallowed the walnut-sized lump in my throat as my concerns about Zika resurfaced and thought, “Why the hell am I here?” I kept reminding myself: you have bug lotion, spray, dryer sheets, lavender oil, and repellent-soaked clothes. If a bug bites you through all that, it was a mighty strong bug.

Yes, there are scary bugs. Yes, there are scary communicable diseases. But I felt so safe the whole trip and had an overwhelming sense of clarity.

I’m so happy that I didn’t let my fear of the unknown get in the way of my dream of going to Uganda.

As a nurse, I assessed vital signs, did head-to-toe assessments, and passed along chief complaints to the providers. And I did it all sitting knee to knee with the patients.

During the ten days we were there, the twenty-two beautiful team members I served with became my family. We bonded over the small wound dressings and the scary cases. We were truly blessed and protected. One couple even got engaged!  

Being among the wonderful Ugandan people, who have so little, made me think differently about generosity. Sunglasses are a hot commodity in Uganda because the sun is so bright, and not everyone has them—it was humbling to think of my five pairs at home. We gave our glasses to people who hadn’t been able to read for years, and one nurse practitioner literally gave the shoes off her feet to a little boy who didn’t have any.

But I think the experience that had the biggest impact on me was learning, as I sat with my patients, how important physical touch and face-to-face interaction are.  

In the U.S., we’re very structured in terms of “universal protocol” and proper handwashing and contact precautions. That has done wonders for the level of care we’re able to provide. But once I let go of my fear of touching people as they came through, I felt like I was really caring for them.  The people became more than patients.

Now that I’ve returned from this wild adventure, when people ask me, “How was Uganda?” my heart skips a beat. Where do I even start? There’s so much to say. There was heartbreak, there was euphoric joy, there was guilt, and there was peace. It was an experience that will be etched in my memory forever.

So often, we hesitate to help people because it’s difficult, because the fear of the unknown outweighs our determination.

But what I’ve learned from this experience is that we need to push past our hesitation and go for it.

The people of Uganda taught me that we don’t need as much as we think we do to be happy. We just need each other. We need our village, because we can’t do life alone. Hold that door open. Donate to the kid raising money for his basketball team. Help an elderly person with their groceries. Call your family members more often. Go the extra mile. You won’t regret it.

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