Mission a Success for Jamaicans and SHU Nursing Contingent

News Story: December 1, 2010
Bridget Mejza, RN, an FNP student, interviewing a Jamaican patient prior to performing a physical exam.

For Sacred Heart University undergraduate nursing student Elizabeth Drehwing of Wyckoff, N.J., ’11, the experience of the medical mission to Jamaica in September was what she expected and more.
“We saw such an immense amount of patients that the experience was not anything short of beneficial, educational and rewarding,” she said.
From Sept. 25 to Oct. 4, a contingent of Sacred Heart University nursing professors and 12 students traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to administer much-needed medical care.
The group worked with PRN Relief International, an organization established by two nurses and two physicians in Connecticut that brings continued medical care to the underserved, poor populations in Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Honduras. PRN also dispatched volunteers to Sri Lanka after the tsunami and to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and have begun a relationship with Liberia. The health professionals have connections to area hospitals and universities. Shery Watson, Sacred Heart nursing instructor, is a member of the PRN board and was team leader for the mission to Jamaica. The team has been serving the same community of Kingston, Jamaica for the past ten years.
According to Sacred Heart Professor Julie Stewart, D.N.P., the other faculty member on the Jamaica trip, the coordination under the umbrella of PRN began two years ago. Stewart said working with PRN for the medical mission provided all the mechanisms, such as lodging and security, to make the effort successful.
Additionally, the Sacred Heart group was aided by Sister Grace Yap, the founder of the Franciscan Ministries, which serves the poor of Jamaica. In preparation for the Americans’ visit, Sister Grace reached out to all of the villages around Kingston and helped to set up the clinics with community leaders. “Sister Grace is the glue to holding this all together,” said Stewart, who made her second consecutive trip to Jamaica.
The group was expected to see more than 1,000 patients in the two-a-day clinics, but Tropical Depression Nicole had struck the island, hampering access. Over the eight days, 800 patients were treated. Because of the mudslides and water overflows, three clinics were canceled. And Stewart said she learned a valuable lesson – pack a raincoat. “I wore black plastic garbage bag,” she said.
Undeterred by the bad weather, the group set up an alternative mission by visiting a girls’ center, which is home to babies and toddlers and females between the ages of 8 and 16. “Some are orphaned, some found on streets, some had been abused, some had been in trouble. That’s why they were staying there,” said Stewart. Two pediatricians accompanied the group.
“It was hard to see all these babies and toddlers. I went through to get something and I must have had three toddlers hanging off my legs within 5 feet. I just wanted to stay there for the rest of the day or take a few home. That was the hard part,” said Stewart, who has focused her clinical practice on vulnerable populations.
For the eight-day mission, 25 suitcases filled with medicine traveled with the group and was kept in the living room of the bungalow where Stewart and Watson stayed. “We’d pack up every day different varieties of medications depending on the different clinics. One nurse runs one clinic and the other runs the second,” she said.
“People are so grateful. They were lined up and waited hours if they needed to. We want to give the best care we can.”
The professors and the nursing students prepared for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, eye infections, sexually transmitted diseases, vaginal infections, asthma, bronchitis, anemia and worms in children. They worked for eight hours, but stayed longer if they were needed.
They administered health care to the poorest of the poor. Jamaicans living in the countryside never had medical care as they have no money or transportation to obtain it. “It was inspiring and eye opening for the undergrads to get to some of these places,” said Stewart of some of the environments in which medical care was dispensed – small rooms, under tin roofs during thunderstorms and one time during last year’s mission working out of a bus.
But, she said, the students were reminded that they were there as the guests of the Jamaican people. “That is the most important thing to tell the students. We are in no position to tell another country how to do their health care. It is more like, ‘we are here as your guests, what can we do to help you?’”  PRN Relief International’s founding belief system is to provide exceptional health care to the Jamaican people, meeting the standards of the US Health Care System while working with accessible resources as well as resources that the SHU contingent brings. The undergraduate students developed educational posters on best practices to promote wellness. These posters were given to area hospitals and clinics to display for future reference. 

From right, Professor Shery Watson, RN, supervising SHU nursing students Thomas Topalian and Natalie Cignatta in the makeshift pharmacy in Jamaica.

The nursing students handled triage, obtained patients’ medical history and ran the pharmacy, which involved filling prescriptions written on index cards by their professors. They also were given a chance to be assigned to an experienced health care provider and if an interesting case presented itself, they were allowed to watch and listen. “They learned a lot of valuable information.”
She added, “Some of the students of various ages are just amazed to see the completely different socioeconomic status. I think many people read about poverty, but until you actually see it or are in it, it just doesn’t have the same impact.”
The trip’s impression on Drehwing will be long-lasting. “The day that it was my turn to triage, I met a woman who shared the same name as me. That started us in friendly conversation and we got to know each other a bit.
“As we waited in the pharmacy for her medications, she stated to me, ‘If we do not see each other again here, we will find each other in heaven.’ She had a lasting impression on me because she had such a positive outlook on life despite her diagnosis.
“In addition, our last day doing clinics was one to remember. We helped women of all ages up to 18 years old. The most rewarding part was having all of the younger children climbing on our arms and legs just to be held. These children wanted nothing more than some attention and care. To help brighten their day, we donated Beanie Babies and small stuffed animals. The smiles on their faces were something I will never forget. Several children were waving their Beanie Babies around saying ‘take my picture!’ while others were in awe admiring the new toy they just received.”
She learned two lessons – one about her education at Sacred Heart and the other about society overall. “Sacred Heart has provided great preparation for a clinical setting. We are fortunate to have lab simulation where we can practice with a small group and an instructor to simulate real life experiences. In addition, we were involved in clinical rotations beginning sophomore year. I, along with other students, am grateful for the opportunities we have been given for growth through the university. Although we are still in the learning process, these experiences have provided us with more and more confidence from week to week.”
And as for society helping the vulnerable populations, Drehwing believes, “I think volunteering is one of the greatest ways to help those in need. Although many might not be able to afford donating money, volunteering time is a very valuable contribution that definitely can make a difference. As many other students experienced in collaboration with me, something as small as a positive conversation can make a difference in a person’s life. Not only is it a rewarding experience for those volunteering, but we can also truthfully provide help and support to those in need.”
As for what she learned about herself, Drehwing said she came away from the experience knowing that nursing “is definitely the career for me. The ability to help people that are truly in need is such a great feeling. I learned that nursing is not an individual job as it involves teamwork. Even though we did not work in a hospital setting, we all had to collaborate to provide care for every patient. Between the student nurses, registered nurses and doctors, we were all able to work on the same page every patient. Where one teammate slacks, the other is able to pick up.”
That is exactly the lesson Stewart and Watson hoped would be imparted on the students. “You always want to do more. We certainly were disappointed that the weather impacted the number of patients we could see, although we still did plenty of things for them. It is great teamwork. And I think that is one of the biggest things for our students. The epitome of what we try to teach our undergrad and graduates students – to really see collaboration among various health professionals. That we are team and that there is not one greater than the other.”