Elective Placement in Mexico

The Elective Placement is spoken about a lot at Surrey, used as a selling point and explained in detail to prospective students at open days.

Well It should be. Those sun filled 4 weeks I spent in Mexico this summer will honestly be remembered as one of the most crucial, pivotal and interesting points in my journey to becoming a nurse.

I’m one of those really stressful students to look after. I have an enormous amount of passion and love for what I do and big things I want to achieve, but I also lack the urgency (and organisation) that my fellow peers have. I’ve always had the attitude of I know I will get it done so I’ll relax whilst everyone else stresses.

Unfortunately (some might think), Elective was one of these things. I had decided through placement and the wealth of experience I thought I had that I was destined to be an Advanced Nurse Practitioner in an acute emergency setting. Therefore, I didn’t need to use my elective to discover an area of nursing I hadn’t yet and wanted to investigate to see if it was a potential future career as I already believed I’d found it.

I’m actually chuckling at myself as I’m writing this, because my elective changed EVERYTHING. It made me realise I really didn’t want to be an advanced nurse practitioner. My elective literally screwed up all my readymade and well thought out plans.

BUT I am so grateful that it did.

Finding my elective was a spur of the moment madness. I typed in electives abroad into google after failing at finding a midwifery placement and clicked on the first website (worktheworld.co.uk), Sri Lanka was my first choice (which sadly had to be changed after the attacks in Easter). Mexico was my second choice, purely based on the fact I spoke the tiniest amount of Spanish.

I really struggle to recall what I believed I would learn from Mexico. I knew the healthcare system was challenged, suffered a chronic lack of funding and resources, but also had world class doctors and many hospitals leading revolutionary studies and research. As I said before, I was naive, I believed I had my life figured out, so Mexico was just going to be a really cool experience but not the life altering one it turned out to be.

From first arriving in the fabulous, vibrant and heavily humid country, I knew how wrong I was. The housemates I lived with were health students from all over the world. I got to meet Australian doctors, an American dentist, a Belgian future surgeon, a radiographer as well as some other nurses from the UK. This was a huge character-building experience. Having to live with 15 strangers, in a foreign country which was 39 degrees most days whilst having to get up early to work in the hospital was tough.

They are now some of the closest friends I’ve got. We spent many nights round the pool talking about the marvellous and craziest things we had seen at placements, the differences in the healthcare system in Mexico compared to back home and the other countries we had come from. Some of the stories were beyond heart breaking. Seeing poorly performed CPR and watching as the team gave up and delivered end of life care with zero dignity or essence of the holistic person-centred care our university preaches constantly. Watching these people suffer shows you why we do it the way we do it here. There were many occasions all of us were watching something we had watched at home and had knowledge on being performed so differently that you almost wanted to scream and shout at these health professionals. I watched a 3-year-old boy scream and cry as a hugely painful medication which was undiluted was pushed quickly through his cannula. In the UK this would cause a stir. I was on my second day and I felt myself fighting to hold back tears. I walked away, wondering why on earth they would continue as a nurse whilst causing so much pain but then the logic kicks in. The message of advice from the house manager was recalled.

I’m here to learn.

I’m not here to judge.

These nurses and doctors are doing the best they can.

They are still saving children’s lives.

There is more in common between us than first thought.

I made it my mission to understand the differences from that moment on. The nurses were caring, kind, spent their own salary on hospital equipment, bought Christmas presents for the children and created plays and shows on the holidays to entertain the children. These nurses were some of the most dedicated and loving people I had ever had the privilege to work with. They worked for a failing healthcare system and fought harder to keep it functioning than anywhere else I could name.

The team of nurses changed my outlook on my own beliefs within nursing by proving me so desperately wrong. It took me back to the roots of nursing. The nurses here loved the children, had worked with them since they were small and had outstanding relationships with them all. Children would run up and hug their nurse, would sit with them whilst they did their notes or other duties, and the nurses wouldn’t worry about time pressures or getting work done quickly. They were here for the children and therefore if the children needed something, notes could wait- they knew they would be completed eventually. Of course, we know the risks associated with not following the strict guidelines and policies we follow in the NHS and I can see clearly why we have them enforced so strictly. However, we speak so frequently about the importance of holistic care and child centred care, and I don’t know if we deliver it as perfectly as the Mexican nurses do. Do we have too many rules? A question I am not qualified enough to answer.

Are the children in the UK as happy and secure in our sterilised, well equipped hospitals with nurses in crisp uniforms and perfected NICE approved guidelines…? Again, I don’t believe I can answer this. The hospital in Mexico fostered a family feel to their children’s ward. It felt warm amongst the chaos. The nurses loved the children and the children loved them back. I think the UK has something to learn from the Mexican healthcare system and if you had asked little old me this before I came to Mexico I would have been astounded.

Elective placements abroad are life changing. I came home with lifelong friends, I had explored beautiful Mexico in the weekends and afternoons, socialised in the traditional Mexican way, learnt some Spanish, swam in lagoons, went ziplining, saw monkeys and got a great tan… but I’d also learnt more about myself and the beautifully small but correct reason for doing nursing:


To be a great nurse doesn’t come from being at the best hospital in London with the most intelligent doctors, with the newest technology and impressive medications. It doesn’t come from naivety at believing you know what’s best from your previous experiences and letting rules decipher you as a nurse.

Being a great nurse is protecting that flame of passion and dedication, following the rules because you have to because we want our patients to be safe and well, but from never forgetting that our patients need to see that flame of love for what you’re doing, even when you’re stressed out because there are 1000 jobs to do and your patient keeps demanding a drink.

Think wisely about your elective. But not too wisely. Take a huge risk, try something that doesn’t match your career goals for the pure thrill of it. Nurses are rubbish at that, and we need to get better because risk taking isn’t always a bad thing!

Author: Alice Beal, Year 3 Student

Disclaimer: This blog contains personal opinions of students only and does not necessarily represent the views of the Children’s Nursing team, School of Health Sciences or the University of Surrey.

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