Compassion across continents

March 18, 2016

In Uganda, a JCCC nursing student finds her life's purpose: treating burn patients

Carla Northington works as a burn-unit nurse at Children's Mercy Hospital. It's a tough job, even for the most compassionate of caregivers. But Northington knew she could do it.

While a nursing student at Johnson County Community College, Northington traveled to Gulu, Uganda, as part of a service-learning opportunity the college began in 2012.

She went twice, actually, and continues to go through the Medical Missions Foundation to help the people of that region deal with the long-term effects of war.

While there, she helped with many projects, but she found herself drawn to the burn unit. "By the second trip, I spent most of my time in the burn unit, checking in, even on our nights off. I knew that was where I needed to be," she said. "I knew I could handle it."

'I was needed'

Burn units, whether in Africa or in North America, are "not the most popular places," Northington explained. "It can be very scary to lots of people, myself included."

But while in Uganda, she discovered she was adept at treating burns. "I quickly found out I was needed, and I wanted to do the best job possible for these patients…They needed it, and they deserved it," she said.

Northington marveled at the strength of the Ugandans she met. "We're blessed to witness such joy in their hearts, such love and forgiveness, even though literally everyone you meet has been personally affected by the war."

She heard stories of abduction, rape and murder; some were forced to become soldiers, only to return to their villages to kill family members, she said.

Meaning and clarity

Her visit to Uganda was "hands down, one of the most life-changing experiences I've had, and definitely the most welcomed."

It helped her find her path, she explained.

"Sixteen years ago, I lost my son from a heart defect. I thought I would go into cardiology, but I had some reservations. I didn't know what I wanted to do or where I'd land, but I wanted it to be meaningful," she said.

Once back in the U.S., Northington began to research how burns are treated stateside. Her research – and her experiences while at JCCC – led to a job offer from Children's Mercy Hospital.

"There is no way I would have gotten my job at CMH Burn Unit without my experience in Uganda," Northington said. "It just would have never happened. My whole interview was a discussion about Uganda and my experiences there. It was meant to be."

Continuing her commitment

Her current career is a balance of caring for young patients in the unit while traveling to the emergency room, operating room or the intensive care unit to care for incoming burn patients.

She plans to visit Uganda again in the fall of 2016, paying back in service what she gained in experience.

"You come away from every experience learning something new about others and yourself. You get more out of it than you give," Northington said. "I feel very blessed to have been a part of these missions and meet some amazing people."