When I decided that I was going to go to Hopkins for nursing school, I made a deal with myself that at some point during my two years here I would go abroad. I wanted to use the nursing skills I was going to learn in a country that needed help and I wanted to do it while I was in school. I didn’t end up going with school to Haiti, but this past spring break I was fortunate to volunteer at a trauma hospital in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti for one week. All thanks to my great Public Health Clinical Instructor (Hi Siobain!). On the first day of clinical she told me about this organization that sends people to Haiti to volunteer for a minimum of one week. Immediately I googled the organization and within the week I had a spot reserved (now they just needed my paperwork and donation 🙂 ).
Aside from stories and pictures from my instructor I had no idea what I was going to encounter on this trip. I was so focused on the semester leading up to spring break that I was rushing around a few days before the trip getting organized, packing supplies and getting any last minute things tied up. Finally though, it was time to go to Miami!
A friend from the same clinical group also signed up so it was an added comfort to start this journey with a familiar face. The group met at the airport and after a long delay on the tarmac we finally set off and headed to Haiti. We arrived around 8pm at night, drove the 10 minutes to the hospital and then had a very short orientation. Like, 45 minutes short. The schedule was handed out and I just knew..I knew I was going to get nights! And nights I got. I was assigned to be Triage Nurse for the seven nights I was there to volunteer. My Hopkins counterpart (hey Alyssa!) was Triage Nurse on days so we signed off to one another at change of shift.
Immediately the six of us on night shift got to work. I went to the triage tent and met the translators and some of the Haitian med students who would be with us as well. I was told there was a patient complaining of a headache that wanted to be seen. I told the translator to bring him into the triage tent. He sat in a chair and at this point I said to the translator, “OK, now what?” His response was, “I don’t know, you’re in charge!” Oh man, welcome to Haiti! In my head I started going through the acronym we learn in school to remember all the questions you ask a patient about a complaint. This happened to be easy though (he always got headaches when his hernia bothered him) and he just needed some ibuprofen. I got an order from a doctor, filled out his paperwork and filled his prescription and soon he was on his way. One down! It didn’t stop there. People kept pouring in. As triage nurse I usually was the first to see the patients and decided the next step (usually I had help and on slow nights I was able to be more involved in the ER). Each patient had a chart started on them, their vitals taken and after finding out their issue, the next step was taken (see the doctor? get a prescription and leave? need surgery? etc.). The first night was pretty busy and we had a steady flow of patients. I’d never been more happy to see someone come take over for me as I was that first morning when Alyssa came through the door. Finally, after travelling and working for 12 hours, I was going to sleep!
Our accommodations were pretty basic. One room with three bunk beds and one bathroom. We had no hot water, you put the toilet paper in the trash can (not the toilet), but we did have a nice moldy shower mat and a loofa! In the mornings the night shift crew would gather back in the room, talk about the events from the previous 12 hours and then go to sleep until later in the afternoon. Then, we’d wake up, eat, and go right back to work at 6pm. If we were lucky there would be a meal for us in the fridge, but since we slept during the day when meals normally came, it was pretty doubtful there’d be anything left. Thankfully I was prepared and had brought some food. Too bad I forgot a fork..
So many events happened during this week that it would be hard to do them justice or recount them all in this short blog. I learned how to put in IV’s, I started them without a pump (I was forced to count drips!) and even got to watch a surgery of an amputation. During down time at night I’d head over to the Peds Unit and play with and feed the babies. This hospital has one of the only NICU’s in Haiti and it was amazing to see these babies thriving (especially when they had great nurses caring for them…Hi Danielle and Becca!). During the day I’d play tic-tac-toe with one of the peds patients (he never. got. bored). There was a spinal cord patient who loved Connect Four and we also played endless games outside as the sun was setting.
Overall the experience was amazing and humbling. The patients we saw were so grateful for the help we were able to provide for them yet so stoic when in pain. We saw gun shot wounds, patients hit by motorcycles, patients hit by rocks, lots of fractures, a case of typhoid, a child with malaria, a man hit by a jet ski, a stroke victim, and many more different cases. The hospital will eventually be turned over to the Haitian doctors and nurses so while we worked side by side, there was also teaching done each day which involved lots of translation and “sign language” at times.
The other volunteers who came for the week were also so wonderful, interesting, and willing to help and teach. Everyone had patience and took the time to help one another and support each other, especially when we had difficult cases. I came knowing only one person and left feeling like I’d known these people for so much longer than one week. While we worked really hard we also had a lot of fun and I think we all hope to come back to Haiti at some point in our careers. If anyone is thinking of going to volunteer in Haiti or another country I highly recommend it – it will only benefit you and the patients you help.
I came back from Haiti and immediately jumped into the last seven weeks of nursing school. For my Transitions Practicum I’ve been placed at a public high school in Baltimore County in the Health Suite (that sounds so much better than just School Nurse, right?). While definitely the energy at the school is not the same as it was in Haiti, it’s been enlightening and I get a second spring break! I’m also applying to jobs and thinking about life after graduation which at this time last year felt like eons into the future. Good luck to all those starting the Accelerated program soon and congratulations to everyone graduating within the next six weeks!! 🙂