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Spotlight on alumni

Vanessa Donnelly

Vanessa Donnelly will without hesitation describe herself as a small town girl from Carbonear with a dream to travel the world and do what she can to make it a better place. After graduating from Memorial’s nursing program, she did just that. Her work took her to Nova Scotia and Africa. Today, she works as a diabetes case management coordinator at Capital Health in Halifax and is planning her next trip overseas. She recently talked to our contributor Bojan Fürst.


BF: How did you decide on becoming a nurse?
VD: I always wanted to help people and I knew that perfect avenue for me would be nursing. I remember applying and thinking: “If I get in, that’s great, if not, we’ll just move on.” I never let myself have any attachment to it because I wanted it so much. And it turned out just like one of those things that are just meant to be. It was a perfect fit. Even from the first month, from the first month in the program, I knew that it was a right thing for me.

BF: What was your experience at MUN like?
VD: I just had so much fun. I made a lot of really nice friends that I am still friends with now. I also found it very nurturing - in a sense that you were very much encouraged, your potential and your ideas were encouraged. I found it to be a very happy, growing place for me. It really helped me to become a person that I am now. It gave me a sense of confidence. And even practically speaking, the program itself prepared me for the, you know, front line nursing work. I heard that from so many people - that MUN nursing graduates, that their level of skill is so much more developed than in many other nursing grads. It gave me that edge.

BF: You moved for you first job to Nova Scotia. How did you make that next step from Nova Scotia to Africa?
VD: It was one of those opportunities that presented itself just at the right time. It was again one of those things I always wanted to do. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to go out, see the world and help people. I was in the masters of nursing program at Dalhousie and the opportunity came up. It’s a program they have every year. At this time, they had an opportunity for students to travel to the Gambia for the summer school with junior and senior high school students. Part of that summer school is to help teaching and one of the subjects was diabetes prevention. Unfortunately, diabetes is a terrible, terrible epidemic in Africa. I had much experience with diabetes so it worked out great. I applied and was accepted in December and in July went for two months. That was in 2006. It was a partnership agreement between a local non-governmental organization called the Nova Scotia Gambia Association and the Dalhousie School of Nursing

BF: What is behind the diabetes epidemic in Africa?
VD: There is a rapid change in diet and lifestyle. As we help Africa become more developed, we also bring our unhealthy habits as well. When you think of Africa, you think of famine and poverty. And there is unfortunately plenty of that, but in the more urban areas you are seeing the rise of fast food places, terrible food choices, smoking, not much exercise... So, you are seeing people becoming obese and there is a strong link between that and diabetes and cardiovascular disease. There is also a heavy reliance on salt and that has an impact as well. Marketing and how we’re socialized also plays a role “Drink Coke and be cool” kind of thing. You are seeing this in Africa now. Also, genetically, Africans are predisposed to develop diabetes.

BF: That was only your first visit to Africa. You went back. Did you go back to the Gambia?
VD: I went to Tanzania. My first trip was so moving and I knew I needed to go back. It was such a learning experience for me. I am sure it was more of a learning experience for me than for those I worked with. So, again I applied through the masters of nursing program. It worked out great. I learned about their health care system and how it’s delivered. Specifically, I wanted to learn about diabetes and what a picture of diabetes looks like in Tanzania.

BF: You are planning to go back.
VD: Yes. There is so much good things happening there and there is a good momentum and the time to make change is now. I really appreciate that. You know, in my little neck of the woods in Nova Scotia, changes are sometimes bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape and just the way things are here. We run things efficiently, but we could take a lot of lessons from Africa. I want to go back again. The biggest thing I learned is that you can do a lot with limited resources. They are doing really well, with what they have. Apply that to here. We have so much, but are we doing a really good job?

BF: You maintained a connection to Memorial. How important is that to you?
VD: It’s absolutely important. Had I not had a wonderful, enriching and supportive education that I had, I’d never be able to do this. My teachers were so supportive, they made me realize that you can do anything, go anywhere... It kept me focused on the bigger picture and what is all this about. I always feel deep connection to Memorial because it has really gotten me to where I am now.
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