Practicing nutrition abroad
Photos courtesy of Katie Hamelin November 13, 2023
Nutrition and dietetics student travels to Kenya for rare abroad nutrition-focused internship
Katie Hamelin was bitten by the travel bug at an early age. Her parents got engaged on the second level of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As a teen, they took her to the famous site she had always seen in photos.
From that moment on, Hamelin knew she wasn’t bound to stay in one place. In high school, she participated in a Northern Ireland exchange program.
Hamelin, who grew up in Newark, chose the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences because it was “in her backyard” and because of the wealth of opportunities to get beyond campus and see the world through study abroad. She enrolled in the World Scholars Program and spent her first semester as a college student in Auckland, New Zealand. When COVID-19 hit, her travels were halted, and she spent more time at home than ever imagined. In the fall semester of junior year, she traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, through World Scholars and embarked on a Winter Session study abroad in South Africa with beloved health behavior and nutrition sciences professor Steve Goodwin, who’s now semi-retired.
“I knew I had to get back to Africa,” Hamelin said.
Hamelin, like any other true wanderlust, can’t stay motivated without a trip on the calendar. Immediately upon her return from South Africa, the now senior, majoring in nutrition and dietetics, began researching her next adventure. She connected with International Medical Aid, which offered nutritionist internships in Kenya.
“As soon as I saw that, I was in,” she said. “You just don’t find nutrition/dietetics pathways abroad very often.”
This past summer, Hamelin set out for Kenya for a month, where she shadowed dietitians at Coast General Teaching Hospital in various wards, including pediatrics, intensive care, oncology and surgical, giving her a first glimpse into nutrition in a clinical setting. She spent most of her time in pediatrics, where she observed several cases of malnutrition.
“They looked like typical babies to me, but malnutrition is measured by height, weight and a mid-upper arm circumference assessment,” Hamelin said. “There are also levels of malnutrition, but most of the cases we dealt with were severe. Some patients you could see had very tiny arms; it was heartbreaking.”
Hamelin remembers a mother who came in with her child, who was between 6 and 8 months old and was born prematurely. In Kenya, it’s typical for a mother to stop breastfeeding at six months, and formula is rarely used to supplement.
“Her child had drastically dropped in weight, and we were a little alarmed. But the mother couldn’t afford a lot of extra food, so whatever they were eating was what the baby was eating. It was a lot of grains and not enough protein.”
Dietitians and doctors at the teaching hospital spoke to patients in Swahili. Afterward, they’d pull Hamelin aside and debrief her in English.
“They took the time to ensure I understood things,” she said. “In that case, the dietitian encouraged the patient to mix eggs into oatmeal as an easy protein, but the mother said she couldn’t afford that.”
The hospital dispensed Formula 75 and Formula 100, high-calorie therapeutic milks used to treat severe, acute malnutrition. After some weight was gained, the baby was provided a peanut-based paste that was high in both calories and protein.
The incident opened Hamelin’s eyes to the inequities within the healthcare system, even abroad.
“Developing babies need protein, but affordability was an obstacle I wasn’t prepared for, so it was interesting to see how that was handled,” Hamelin said.
The experience made her appreciate clinical nutrition more.
“While I see myself practicing nutrition in more of a public health or community outreach setting, I appreciate what dietitians do and can appreciate the clinical aspects so much more.”
In her free time, Hamelin learned basic Swahili, toured a spice market and attended lectures on pre- and post-colonial Kenya and healthcare in Kenya. She also went snorkeling, traveled to the Masai Mara for safari, and bonded with other interns in the program.
But Hamelin looked forward to Wednesdays most, when she had the opportunity to travel to local schools and teach kids.
“We’d educate elementary school kids about proper hand hygiene and toothbrushing,” she said. “We talked about menstrual health with middle and high school kids. We answered their questions, and it was just such an open space to talk. I remember being scared when I was young, too, and we’d speak from experience but enforce that it’s all normal. You could tell we taught them something that we’d take away.”
Every visit ended with either songs or hugs.
“I loved Wednesdays — none of this was related to nutrition, but it was a great opportunity to teach and learn,” she said.
Hamelin also worked in community health clinics on the weekends alongside the dietitian, doctors and a dentist, where she felt she made an impact.
“We conducted basic health screenings, including checking height, weight and blood pressure and calculating BMI. If they were severely underweight or overweight, they’d visit the nutritionist,” Hamelin said. “We helped hundreds of people in the community who otherwise couldn’t get to the hospital.”
The experience helped her realize her career dream — practicing nutrition abroad.
“I had never experienced nutrition practiced in another country on any of my World Scholars trips,” Hamelin said. “While cases and treatments are different than in the U.S., it was such a valuable learning experience.
“It was also cool to see what I’m learning in class applied. I’m in a medical nutrition therapy class now and connecting the dots from what I learned in Kenya as we talk about nutrient interactions,” Hamelin said.
Jennifer Thorpe, director of undergraduate nutrition programs for the Department of Health Behavior and Nutrition Sciences in the College of Health Sciences, called this a transformative experience for Hamelin.
“In the U.S., it can be challenging for undergraduate students majoring in nutrition and dietetics to find comparable hands-on, clinical experiences until they enter a post-graduate dietetic internship program that is required to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN),” Thorpe said. “For Katie to have found an immersive, international clinical experience that blends all of her areas of interest and validates her chosen career path before she has even completed her bachelor’s in nutrition and dietetics is truly inspiring.”
Hamelin would encourage other nutrition and dietetics majors to seize this opportunity.
“Push yourself outside your comfort zone and be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Hamelin said. “The experience opened my mind, educated me about the practice of nutrition in other countries, and helped me learn about different cultures while meeting many new friends from around the globe.”