Beyond these walls

Nursing and education programs bring help to the people of Haiti and experience the lesson of a lifetime

I’m sure if you told any of the students that traveled to Haiti over spring break that they would help nearly 1,000 patients in just 10 days, they would have called you crazy.

In the less-than-optimal conditions of Haiti—the small, but resilient country in the Caribbean—both students and faculty within the nursing and education programs joined forces to bring aid where it was needed most.

From March 2–11, students and faculty pushed through heat, language barriers and other challenges to put on successful health clinics and classes for several communities.

Five students from the nursing program and two students from the elementary education program gathered as many supplies as they could in the months leading up to the trip—essentials for third-world countries like water filters and first-aid kits.

The nursing students were led by Dr. Teresa Darnall, Dr. Mary Asher and Sharon Nelson—all faculty members within the May School of Nursing and Health Sciences. Nurse practitioner, Dr. Gini Holter, and pharmacist, Linda Zilwegger, also accompanied the group on their trip. Dean of Arts, Humanities and Education, Dr. Pam Vesely, accompanied the elementary education students.

This trip would mark the first time outside the country for many of the students.

“I’m not really the best at flying,” senior nursing student, Brittany Stanton, admitted. Nevertheless, she was excited.

Leading up to the trip, Stanton and her classmates took a “Haiti crash course” as they called it. A few times a month, the students would gather with the faculty to begin preparations for the trip.

“We learned about Haiti’s geography, certain types of diseases and ways to approach the language barrier,” Stanton said. She also added that students had to become aware of certain cultural norms that differed from those in the U.S.

“In order to be culturally appropriate, you need a good understanding of what is going on in the country itself so you can respond to your patients’ needs,” Darnall said, who has visited Haiti twice before in 2016 and 2017.

For example, Darnall explained that in Haitian culture, there are many ties to certain types of foods and their associated risks when it comes to pregnancy. Many women categorize foods into “hot” foods, which are safe to consume during pregnancy, and “cold” foods, which are not. Many foods that are considered “cold”—even though they may be a hot food temperature-wise—are essential to a healthy diet especially during pregnancy.

“So we have to suggest alternate foods that women can eat during their pregnancy to better ensure their health,” Darnall said.


Heading to Haiti

The group traveled from Banner Elk, North Carolina, before leaving for their flight from Charlotte on March 2. They landed in Port-au-Prince—Haiti’s capital located in the country’s inner southern coast on the Gulf of Gonâve—more than 1,200 miles away.

Instantly, the difference between the two countries was undeniable.

“It’s always a culture shock no matter how many times you’ve gone to third-world countries,” said nursing student, Krystal Gutierrez, who has traveled to countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

From the airport in Port-au-Prince, the group traveled three hours south to the city of Jacmel.

Once settled, the group headed out to explore some of Haiti before starting work for the week. First stop, the markets.

Fellow nursing student, Taylor Hicks, said even though the group had done their research on the country prior to departing, experiencing it in person was nothing like they had imagined.

Even though there was smoke in the air and crowded streets, “it was absolutely beautiful,” Hicks recalled.

“I wanted students to gain an understanding of how people live before we started treating them,” Darnall said. “It’s a real eye opener.”

Street Art


To get where they wanted to go, students and faculty traveled by the Tap-Tap, a repurposed truck with benches to taxi passengers around. When people wanted to get off, they would tap the metal walls of the bus—hence the name.

The market was full of people carrying out their day-to-day chores, purchasing meats and produce to eat later on and the charcoal to cook with.

Cutting through the brown dust, brightly colored paintings for sale lined sidewalks.

Stanton said that even as they sat on the bumpy Tap-Tap, she could see how crowded the market and streets were. “You have no personal space,” she added.


Tap-Tap Ride

Getting Down to Business

The following day, it was time to begin assessing patients. For the remainder of the trip, the group was stationed at the Hope Alive! Clinic three hours north in Mariani—a coastal town on the inner north shore of Haiti.

Gutierrez said that in the following moments during the team’s first clinic, she realized she was practicing on real patients.




“I was so nervous, but I had to quickly get into gear and think. We are not only changing the lives of those children, but also ourselves,” she said.

One afternoon, as the nursing students completed assessments at the Hope Alive! Clinic’s Solace Center—an attached nutritional clinic with a focus on babies and young toddlers—the education students completed evaluations of their own. The students looked for irregularities in both cognitive and developmental benchmarks. The information was then passed on to the nursing students who could use the information and vice versa.

This gave both sets of students a complete look at the health of each patient, Vesley said. “It was a very symbiotic relationship and they were able to learn from one another.” The two disciplines worked together to develop plans for the young children moving forward, plans that would last long after they were gone.

Most of the time, children were either dehydrated or malnourished, Hicks said. For her, it was upsetting to know that beyond providing some water and food, not much could be done in the short amount of time they had with the children.

“I had to have a mindset of throwing myself into this work, but I also had to remember that I was doing everything I could do and not be upset that I couldn’t do more,” she added.

For a few patients, their time with the nursing students altered their lives dramatically. Hicks recalled one patient in particular.

“There was a little girl. She must have been walking down the street [barefooted] when she stepped on a can lid and cut her foot,” Hicks recounted.

With the help of the faculty and students, the clinic was able to create a makeshift sterile environment to clean and stich the young girl’s foot.

“It was exciting to see how cooperative she was and how thankful that we were able to help her out…otherwise she might have lost her foot,” Hicks said.


Group photo


Later in the week, nursing and education students collaborated with local health care providers to present an expectant mothers course. Many mothers-to-be in Haiti give birth at home, so Darnall and her students gathered supplies like soap, gloves, and pads and created take-home kits for the mothers to have. The group handed out approximately 14 kits before leaving another 90 with expecting mothers in the future.

‘This Is Who I Am’

Even for Darnall who has traveled to Haiti three times on similar trips, each time proves itself special in its own way.

“Most individuals are not provided with the opportunity to get outside of their comfort zone,” Darnall said, referring to the challenging conditions that Haiti presented during the week. “This is about how you deal with people who don’t speak your language, how you use your senses to assess someone, and how you deal with fear…this was an opportunity for these students to grow professionally.”

Stanton said the trip provided her a chance to test her knowledge in a radically new way.

“We had to be real nurses,” she said. “So the trip gave me confidence in my knowledge by putting it into practice.”

Gutierrez said that the trip to Haiti showed her that her knowledge and passion can take her anywhere she wants to travel.

“No matter where I am, I know that I can work with what I have to bring health care to people who need it,” she said. “Not only did the trip increase my knowledge and critical thinking, but it also showed me how much can be accomplished with just the basics. You don’t have to have a bunch of fancy equipment to give good, quality patient care.”

By Nina MastandreaApril 25, 2018