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Nursing students learn as much as they give during spring break trip to Haiti

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Although it came smack in the middle of one of the busiest times for senior nursing majors, their spring break trip to Haiti was all Bethel College students Danica Cox and Laura Prahm could have hoped for.

“It was fantastic, life-changing,” says Prahm. “It was everything a trip to a Third World country in your senior year of college should be.”

Although it came immediately before an intensive week of review for their national certification exams, Cox, of Weskan, and Prahm, of Wichita, chose to spend March 15-22 on a medical service trip in Hinche, central Haiti, along with one of their nursing instructors, Geri Tyrell.

Neither Tyrell nor Prahm had previous experience in a developing country on the scale of Haiti. This was Cox’s third trip to Haiti, however.

She first went in January 2011 as part of a Bethel College interterm class that followed development aid from source to destination. She returned for 10 days last summer to do a needs assessment in preparation for the spring break 2012 trip.

Cox had originally hoped to have most or all of Bethel’s senior nursing class participate in the trip. But as it turned out, three people “really was a perfect group for a trial run. We were able to sit and brainstorm, and come up with a lot of cool ideas and plans – to do the kind of needs assessment that I wanted to do last summer,” she says.

Their contact in Haiti is Wildy Mulatre, a Bethel graduate who is now a health-care administrator at Hôpital Ste. Therese in Hinche. Part of the joy of the experience, all three agree, was the hospitality that Wildy, his wife Jesula and their four children offered.

They attended church with the family, enjoyed traditional Haitian foods as well as recipes Jesula, a trained chef, had created herself, and visited a favorite picnic and swimming spot, a waterfall near Hinche. They went to watch girls' volleyball in Hinche and brought three balls to give to the team the Bethel group played when they visited in January 2011.

They also got to take a field trip to see a brand-new “state-of-the-art for Haiti” hospital under construction at Mirebalais. Zanmi Lasante/Partners in Health, a group started by Dr. Paul Farmer, is building the hospital.

“It’s beautiful,” says Prahm. “It’s designed to [take advantage of] Haitian culture.”

“Besides the facility itself, what impressed me was the plan to [turn it over] to the Haitian Ministry of Health, not to have another foreign-run hospital,” Tyrell adds.

They were mostly there to learn and work, and they did plenty of both. Every day except Sunday they spent in the hospital. Mornings, they were in the men's post-op ward where they did wound treatment, dressing changes and medication assessments.

“It was so relieving to see the quality of nursing care,” says Prahm, “especially working with the minimal resources available to them.”

In addition, she says, “it was cool to discover how much you can do with gestures” when working with nursing aides who spoke no English while the three from Bethel spoke no Haitian Kréyol.

Some of what they saw was sobering. “Some of the wounds we took care of – how could it get this bad, and how could you keep functioning?” Tyrell says. “The pain management was amazing,” Prahm adds. “There was such a small amount [of pain medication]. They are very stoic.

“We had to do some pretty gnarly stuff,” she continues. “But as soon as we were done, it seemed they couldn’t stop thanking us.”

Besides the time spent in the post-op ward, they were able to spend one afternoon in the emergency room and to visit the surgical unit.

“We met up with a doctor I knew from last summer,” says Cox. “He spoke English, and it was good to see a familiar face. We worked with him for an afternoon.”

They also brought some basic supplies to donate: surgical gloves, bandages, alcohol wipes, swabs and the like. Funds to pay for these came from a fundraiser the three held earlier in the spring at Pages Books & Coffee in downtown Newton.

“We got some ideas about specific items they need,” says Tyrell. She also saw supplies as an area where Bethel nursing students could assist.

“Our immediate plan is to continue to build this trip as an option for Bethel nurses,” she says. “So we asked, what kind of assistance can we [offer] the community? One thing would be some basic education on supplies – organizing a supply warehouse to help them track what they have.”

Their conversations with Wildy made them see, she says, “that the Haitians appreciate the supplies but there’s such a need for helping people earn a living rather than rely on handouts. We wondered what it might take to support a micro-business, where someone was responsible for organizing supplies and distributing them to the wards.”

Another idea they came up with was “teaching the nursing assistants and nurses CPR” – not an automatic part of their basic education as it is in the United States. “That way, rather than just giving, we would be teaching.”

Tyrell echoes Prahm’s assessment that an experience like this one can be “life-changing.” When she was herself a nursing student at Bethel, she says, a visit to a Russian orphanage with a Bethel group made a profound impression on her. “It has guided my nursing practice, as has hearing Danica’s stories” from her previous visits, Tyrell says.

Prahm says she, too, was drawn by Cox’s passion for working in Haiti. “I had never had an experience like this,” she says. “I wanted to know what it felt like to be so deeply affected.”

She continues, “You don’t understand culture shock until you experience it.” On the long ride from the airport in Port-au-Prince to Hinche in central Haiti, she recalls sitting in the back seat of the vehicle with two people who spoke only Kréyol, looking out the window at tent settlements and cargo containers that functioned as dwellings. “I wanted to get back on the plane and go home,” she says.

Yet after only a few days, she says she could wholeheartedly agree with Cox’s statement: “We all felt like we could have stayed longer.”

Though she is graduating in May, Cox hopes to remain involved in planning future Bethel nursing trips to Haiti. “I’m very excited about how [this trip] went,” she says. “It was important to get Geri on board. She is the organizer – the power to make things happen.”

“I am thankful Bethel would allow us to do this,” says Tyrell. “And I’m thankful for the passion and desire [to serve] that Danica and Laura brought with them.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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