It takes a certain kind of nurse to leave behind everything familiar, travel to a poor or devastated international destination and care for long lines of sick or injured people.
But that’s what many of Mass General’s nurses do, whether responding to an earthquake in Haiti or working in Africa for better maternal and infant health. As Mass General’s Chief Nurse Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, FAAN, puts it, “We are improving patient care delivery and advancing the profession of nursing around the world.” Mass General’s nurses are trained and experienced in serving the world’s most distressed populations.
Take Nick Merry, RN, for example. One day in November 2013, he was working his usual shift in anesthesia recovery at Mass General. The next, the nurse was on his way to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines where he would travel by boat and on foot into remote areas to reach the people who needed help.
“It’s such a great opportunity to go somewhere else and help people,” says Mr. Merry, who also deployed to Indonesia after the 2005 tsunami, and to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “When we go to a disaster, we often see people who don’t have injures related to the disaster but who have no access to health care,” he says. “People with chronic health conditions line up and want to be seen.” The nurses will dispense healthcare advice and, if they have them, vitamins and medicines to help treat common medical conditions. Of the total 27 medical professionals MGH sent to the Philippines, 20 were nurses, Dr. Ives Erickson points out.
Nurses Delivering More than Medicine
At other times, the nurses play an even bigger role, especially when small children arrive without parents at makeshift clinics in a disaster-struck area. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, for example, nurses Sheila Preece, NP-C, and Jacky Nally RN, BSN, MS, were assigned to work at a pediatric field clinic where children, many of them orphaned or separated from parents, were temporarily housed.
“These were children who were unsafe in the congested cities. They were just being dropped off,” Ms. Preece recalls. “Many children and babies had high fevers. More and more were getting sick. It seemed like the infection rate was getting away from us.” The children needed medical care but also routine child care, she says. Babies needed feeding and changing. Toddlers needed to be watched, clothed and tended to. There was a feeling of overwhelming need.
But it is at times like this that the patients give something back, says Mrs. Nally who has also served in the Philippines, Indonesia and Honduras. For example, she recalls one male staffer who was having trouble coping with the demanding situation and was missing his own children and family at home.
“He was a big, burly, rough-looking guy on the outside but he was always walking around with one of those babies in his arms,” she recalls. Taking solace from holding and caring for the babies, she says, was a way they all found comfort. “It’s not only about what we can do for them. But what they did for us.”
And then, Ms. Preece recalls, a grandmother of one of the children came to her and told her through an interpreter that “she felt that God had brought us there to them.” The MGH nurse pauses, to recall the moment. “That’s our reward,” she says, “Just when we feel like we’re losing ground, something like that happens.”
Disaster relief is only one of many ways international nursing at Mass General makes a difference. Education and cultural exchange are also part of the mission.
Calls for Nurse Volunteers
Disaster relief is only one of many ways international nursing at Mass General makes a difference. Education and cultural exchange are also part of the mission. For example, MGH nurses travel to other parts of the world to do training and education. “MGH nurses teach public health and nursing practices as well as maternal and child health and well-baby care in places like Africa,” Mrs. Nally says.
The work of such nurses does not always involve going abroad. Sometimes it means hosting nurses from other countries at Mass General for training and an exchange of ideas. “It gives them the opportunity to see how we do things here and bring it back to their own countries,” says Mr. Merry. “It’s an exchange of information for both sides.”
Nevertheless, when major disaster strikes somewhere in the world, nurses at Mass General expect to hear a call for volunteers. Even though their absence puts some stress on their colleagues who must fill the schedule while they are gone, they say they know the hospital and its staff are behind such missions. “My own department is very supportive,” Ms. Preece explains. “My direct colleagues jumped right in to fill the gap. They are part of the team and they know it’s something they can do to help the disaster victims, too.”