When Shirley Rhodes returned from a health-care mission trip to one of the poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere last fall, the University of Memphis nursing school student was extremely frustrated.
"I was overwhelmed by the suffering of those people," says Rhodes. "I thought our efforts were a Band-Aid and that the problem was too big for us."
Rhodes had treated a woman who was suffering from a severe case of pneumonia in Batey Algodón, an impoverished village in the Dominican Republic. "She was struggling just to breathe," recalls Rhodes. "In the U.S. this woman would have been hospitalized and intubated. Here, she couldn't afford it. We gave her antibiotics, decongestants, and flu medications, but I really thought our efforts would not save this woman. I felt like she would die after we left."
But on her return trip this past March, Rhodes found out differently. The woman was not only alive, she was up and walking. "Seeing that our intervention had saved a life makes me determined to continue this mission," says Rhodes.
Rhodes was in the Dominican Republic as part of a unique course titled "Nursing in Diverse Cultures," offered through the U of M's Loewenberg School of Nursing. Each semester nursing faculty and student nurses travel to the Caribbean country to administer free health care to a needy population. On the most recent five-day trip in March, 32 student nurses and four nursing school faculty treated 2,500 individuals.
"The purpose of the trip is to share nursing talent with people who have no access to health care," says Dr. Lawrette Axley, a nursing school professor who created the program in the fall of 2005.
"For some of these people, it is the first time they have ever seen a doctor or nurse," adds Johna Jenkins, a graduate student. "They walk for miles and miles just to be seen by us. That is how desperate they are."
Axley explains that she created the course after she learned of horrific living conditions in the "bateyes" of the Dominican Republic. Bateyes are villages built by sugar cane companies to house their workers. The villages have deteriorated into slums with no running water or sewage system. Most residents are unemployed because of a decrease in the world demand for sugar cane; those who do find work make less than $3 a day. The Dominican government does little to assist because the majority of the people in the bateyes are of Haitian descent. The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
"No one ever comes to help us because we're Haitians," says Pastor Marcelino of the village of Palo Bonito. "We have many illnesses and we're very hungry. A lot of times the people eat leaves because there is nothing else. The only help we get is from the church and the missions."
Each day of the trip the student nurses set up a medical clinic in an impoverished community. With bed sheets as partitions, several examination rooms are created. Two student nurses and a translator staff each room. Before medications are given, the student nurses consult with a nurse practitioner. Each family receives vitamins and a hygiene pack consisting of soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.
"We have to educate them, too — I have seen them spread toothpaste on a wound because they didn't know what the toothpaste was for," says student nurse Elizabeth Dahl.
During the March trip, student nurses treated patients for intestinal parasites, chicken pox, the flu, pneumonia, and anemia, among other things. Each person on the trip brought along an extra suitcase that was used to transport medications and hygiene products to the Dominican Republic.
Axley says the benefits go both ways: "Our student nurses' assessment skills become top-notch. They have to use their critical thinking skills because they can't go read a lab report. And in the U.S. they might see five or six patients in a clinical setting. Here they see 50 or 60 a day."