A Nurse Abroad - Y Magazine
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A Nurse Abroad

A BYU grad has traveled the globe to teach better nursing practices to vulnerable populations.

Photo by Lindsey Rose Melby

Carolyn Melby (AS ’66) was sure she was dying. In 2015 she’d spent several months in a Cambodian camp for orphans with HIV, providing desperately needed nursing education. After contracting an unknown illness and developing a prolonged fever of 105, things seemed bleak, but she stubbornly refused to accept fate: “I wasn’t going to die in Cambodia when I didn’t need to.” She fought on until an infectious-disease expert from Norway determined she had typhoid fever and administered a life-saving treatment, allowing her to continue teaching nursing principles abroad.

Armed with extensive education and extraordinary grit, Melby has shared her expertise from Cambodia to the Caribbean. “There are desperate needs all over,” she says. She is driven by a desire to serve God’s children and open doors for the Church. “I was a missionary from day one. Everything I do is motivated by that.”

Born on a North Dakota ranch in the 1940s, Melby says there seemed to be just two career options for women—teaching and nursing. “I didn’t want to teach,” she says, “so I became a nurse.” After joining the Church at 18, Melby attended BYU and then served a mission in Australia.

After receiving a master’s degree and nurse-practitioner’s license, Melby worked for several years in a practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Eventually, she wanted a bigger impact. “I was stuck on treadmill,” she explains. “To impact a population at large, you need a community-health focus rather than an individual focus.”

“Why would I retire when I know more now than I have ever known before?”

—Carolyn Melby

Melby’s career took a political twist when she worked on the Reagan/Bush presidential campaign, where she discovered that “you make a difference by making policy.” Upon finishing the campaign, she returned to school to obtain a doctorate in health policy. Despite her previous aversion to teaching, Melby went on to teach at universities across the globe.

When she eventually retired, Melby found that it didn’t suit her ambitious nature. “Why would I retire,” she remembers thinking, “when I know more now than I have ever known before?” So Melby founded a charity, named after her parents—the Carl and Engla Melby Charitable Foundation. Teaming up with the British charity AMAR, she provides nursing education in developing countries.

Now almost 80 years old, Melby works in Erbil, Kurdistan, to empower and educate nurses. “There is no nursing registration in Kurdistan,” explains Melby, who understands the value of standards defining what a nurse knows and is qualified to do. Her charity provides vital education to public hospitals and also works with refugee camps in the region teaching classes in English, nutrition, hygiene, and family planning. Latter-day Saint Charities is funding a development center for nurses and midwives that is currently under construction to teach lay midwives proper nursing procedures. “I felt like a raft in a storm,” Melby says of meeting nurse midwives in Kurdistan. “They clung to me, desperate for help.”

Melby also works closely with governments to establish consistent and credible nursing credentials. Beyond Kurdistan, she has visited Asian and Caribbean countries to develop advanced nurse-practitioner programs recognized by the government that will address gaps in nursing education.

With her background in nursing, politics, and health policy, Melby feels uniquely prepared to tackle global health-policy challenges. “I see again and again that I’m doing something no one else could do,” she says. “No one with my expertise was available to go to Kurdistan and do this. It was me. And that’s pretty wonderful.”