In 1989, I took a job with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin as a nursing instructor for the recently opened Intermediate Intensive Care Unit. In the intervening years, I have been a staff nurse and educator. I’ve served on shared governance committees, participated in research and quality improvement initiatives and served on professional boards. Currently, I am a clinical educator at Children’s Hospital. My work has given me the privilege to travel to developing countries to provide much needed medical care.
I have traveled on 10 medical mission trips in the past 25 years. I have been to the state of Chiapas, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. Seven of these trips were to Haiti. I spent time in small villages and in the famous slum, Cite Soleil, in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. It took a catastrophic earthquake earlier this year to reveal to the rest of the world what I learned years ago – the needs of Haiti are enormous, and the people of Haiti are beautiful, kind, gracious and deserving.
Mission work can be complicated at times, but through the leadership of organizations like Vision Health International and the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, Ill., I have worked in a dental clinic, a medical clinic and as a post-anesthesia recovery unit nurse. The logistics can be daunting – scheduling physicians, nurses and anesthesiologists to work in concert with health care providers present in such impoverished countries. Supplies we take for granted – IV pumps, monitors, etc. – can be ancient or simply nonexistent. Still, one of the most enjoyable parts is the opportunity to be both independent and creative in making do with what is available. Last year in Mexico, I had to administer intravenous medicine to a young girl. No online dosage handbook, no pump and high stakes (as her vision was threatened), but I was so happy that we had the medication at all.
In the Dominican Republic, I cared for a boy who had bilateral cataracts; we operated on both eyes a couple of days apart. After the second surgery he sat up very straight and he smiled. Actually, we all sat up straighter and smiled, too.
There are barriers of language compounded by wide spread illiteracy, lack of medical supplies and medications, and minimal education. For instance, I learned that handing out a one-page sheet on how to recognize and treat diarrhea would be pointless since so many could not read. Instead, I watched in awe as an American public health nurse taught a large group of Haitian villagers the recipe for homemade rehydration solution. Another time, I was trying to comfort a young Haitian boy in his native language of Kreyol (Kreyol is a language with close ties to the Creole spoken in Louisiana). I struggled to find the right words in his language. There will always be barriers, but I do not let that stop me. As I said, these are beautiful people whose lives are just as important as yours or mine.
I am only one of so many who help and volunteer their time. Over the years, I have met and have worked side by side with Haitian seminarians, villagers, missionaries, nuns and a host of Americans who make up the global giving community I have come to know and love. All of us know the real truth: that we are the ones who benefit most. Our lives of privilege are changed forever. And while the needs are always great, I don’t intend to give up. I look at it this way – if everybody else does a little bit, then I can go and feel like I have helped.
I was not in Haiti at the time of the earthquake but hope to return early next year. I cannot give up despite the newest set of obstacles. My heart tells me that this is where I need to be. I will be forever grateful to Haiti for teaching me about myself as a person and as a nurse.
-Jan Holzauer, RN