Meet Susan Fletcher, a nursing professor at Chamberlain College of Nursing in St. Louis, Missouri, and one of her current senior nursing students, Sarah Turner. In this episode, you’ll hear all about their international service project, taking nursing students to areas around the world.
MP3 Audio Podcast
Jamie Davis: Sarah and Susan, I want to welcome both of you to Nursing Notes Live. So I think we’ll start with you, Sarah. You’re still currently in nursing school, at least, for a few more days. So tell us a little bit about your background why you wanted to become a nurse and your path and your nursing experience through nursing school?
Sarah Turner: Well, I’ve always had a really strong desire to learn science and medicine and really be very aware of what’s going on with people and their bodies. And went to school, got a biology degree, became a teacher. Got tired of it really quickly and then my mom was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. And throughout the time that we lived with her disease, we had a lot of nurses coming and going and we also got a lot of help from the community. Our friends, our families, strangers – people pitched in all the time to make sure that everybody in the family was doing really well. So after we lost my mom, I felt like I needed to re-evaluate a little bit and look at what I was doing. And decided to leave teaching and choose a path that was going to not only give back to the community that gave me so much but give back to everybody around the world and really highlight my love of medicine and science.
Jamie Davis: Excellent. I find so many people that are touched by the nurses that helped them and want to give back and I’ve heard that kind of story many times before. I think it’s one of the ways that many of us are led to the nursing profession.
Sarah: It really is. They not only became the people that come and go from our house or our friends, they became a part of the family and a part of our closest circle as we went through the most difficult times in our lives. I really truly, as I go forward in my nursing career, look forward to becoming a part of the family for everybody I worked with and helping them through the difficult times as well as some of the really happy times.
Jamie Davis: Susan, what about you? What led you to nursing? Tell us a little bit about your background through school and through your profession to where you are today.
Susan Fletcher: Okay. My interest has probably always been there in helping people and helping things. Even as a kid, I would be the one that would bring home the sick animals. My father was a physician and I’d bring home birds. I’d bring home dogs or cats. One time, I brought home this great big snake and the family freaked out over that because it was a poisonous snake but I didn’t know that at the time. Other than that, I knew I always wanted to be a nurse. I always wanted to be involved in helping. My first job was in public health. Then I did Emergency Room nursing for quite a while. From public health and emergency, I went into education. And I blended both of those roles into international nursing which is what I do now. It is like the dream job for me. I absolutely love everything that I do and the opportunity to work with so many unique people, so many wonderful students. Sarah is just a wonderful example of the quality people that I have an opportunity to be connected with. But we have the opportunity to serve humanity in so many different countries. So that’s me.
Jamie Davis: Sarah, you got involved when you were at school, a nursing school, with the International Nursing Service Project and working with Susan on going somewhere overseas. Tell us a little bit about why you chose that as an opportunity for you to give back and do some service projects as part of your nursing experience in school?
Sarah: Well, I heard about the Nursing Service Project and going to other countries in trying to help them as much as we’re helping the people around us and realized that there are community nursing classes. Of the 65 of us in my class, most of them are going to be go out and helping the people in a community. I felt like I wanted to move in a broader scope. I want to help everybody. But I really wanted to take the opportunity to travel outside of my comfort zone and change my perspective a little bit. And so when the opportunity to go to Kenya or Brazil or – my options were Kenya and Brazil at that time – I knew I had to jump on it. There was no question. I had to. So when Dr. Fletcher and I spoke for the first time and she was trying to decide, we’re discussing whether or not I wanted to go to Kenya or Brazil, I asked her straight up, “Which one am I going to get the dirtiest? Where am I going to get knee-deep and everything?” She said, “Kenya’s the one.” So it really became a drive to get to Kenya and begin the process and truly immerse myself in their culture and their lifestyle and trying to help as much as I could.
Jamie Davis: Su, are all the students is go-get-them and driven to do these types of projects when they come and talk to you?
Susan: The students that are interested in the international project are because it is something that they have to apply for. So it’s a competitive program. They have to have a certain GPA to qualify for the program. They have to be recommended from their faculty to just get in for an interview. So it’s not like, “I think I want to do this.” It’s “Would you consider me or put me with the list of applicants?” I tell you, I bring the best and the brightest when we go to any of these countries. The students are very committed. They’re very dedicated. In addition, they have to earn the money to pay for the trips themselves. Then, in addition to that, we offer college credits for the experience and they have to pay for the college course. So these kids work really hard so that they can eat rice and eggs for two weeks and work in the slums. It’s incredible. I am just so proud of the people that I bring.
Jamie Davis: Sarah, what are some the things you learned? What were some of the biggest impacts on you from this trip?
Sarah: I think the thing that really impacted me the most, and it took several days before it hit hard, was that we have so much of everything in the United States and so many people are living with so little. We take advantage of that. We don’t realize that we are truly gifted with what we have here. And when I came back, everything changed in my life. I stopped going to shopping binges. I donated a lot of things to the Goodwill and to the homeless shelters. Because I truly realized that I don’t need everything that I have. And while I may want it, other people need it. It was really important for me to keep that in mind and I still remind myself, “I don’t need this. I want it but I don’t need it.”
Susan: Sarah, I think that’s what a lot of people say to when they come back from the trip. Your differentiation between need and want, I think that’s one of the major transformative changes that we see in everybody. Don’t you agree that that’s a big change for the people?
Sarah: It is and it’s overwhelming. The shopping mall was – just isn’t the experience when I got home. I went in, turn around, and walked right back out. It was too big, too much, too bright, couldn’t handle it. That was my big moment. It was too much. When you’re in Kenya, when you’re with your group and your community, you learn so quickly how to create what you need. And it becomes almost innate maybe to look around and say, “Okay, I need this. I don’t have it. How can I make it?” and to come back to the United States and say, “Oh, I need this. Bam! It’s right here.” It’s overwhelming.
Susan: Yes, so what’s an example of that, creating something?
Sarah: Oh, we made eyedrops. We taught them how to make lots and lots of eyedrops. We taught people to add salt to their water as they boil it and then let it cool to rinse their eyes out because the pollution is really bad out there. It really bothers and creates all the issues and bothering their eyes. So we taught them how because – “Yes, we can give you a bottle of eyedrops but that’s not going to last very long.”
Jamie Davis: I’ve heard that from numerous interviews I’ve done over the years with people that travel to other parts of the world. That necessity to create something from nothing almost and to redefine your viewpoint of what basic medical and healthcare is because you don’t have the resources that you take for granted here in the United States, for instance.
Susan: Right. What happens then after you’ve been gone a year from Kenya? So how has that experience changed you now?
Sarah: I still stop to help strangers far more often than I did before. I always carry an extra granola bar in my purse for homeless people because it’s hard to be hungry and everybody – my vision change. Everybody deserves to eat. Everybody deserves human kindness when somebody is saying, “I have this. Let me share it with you.” And really knowing I have so much now and it hasn’t changed much since before and until the end of the nursing school. I have a lot less than I did when I started but there’s no reason I can’t share it. I think that’s one of the biggest changes. I knew that I needed to share before and I was always willing to – but now I go out of my way to try to make a difference in the people we see.
Susan: So how then does that experience change the way you are going to be a nurse?
Sarah: I think it puts me in a little more contact with my patients emotionally. I can look beyond socio-economic borders very easily now. It doesn’t make any difference to me with my patients. I’ve had several patients who were not English-speaking. I had one patient who spoke only sign language and, in Kenya, most of our patients spoke Swahili. And I learned a little while I was there but I think when I learned from that was just try because they really appreciate when we try. I had a patient who spoke sign language and I went in and I can finger spell and instead of being afraid or try, I walked in and I had a conversation with her and we spelled the whole thing out. I sat down. I took the time. We spelled out the conversation and I got what she needed to be comfortable. That made a big difference in her stay at the hospital.
Susan: Right. I think that – like another thing that you brought out was that you connected with them. When we go on a trip, we had so little. We don’t have all the high-tech equipment. All we have is by assessment skills and we have to actually touch a person and if we bring that home, that connection with people where it doesn’t matter if we were in intensive care or out in community or public health. When we do more than just listen to the verbage but we listen to the language, we look at their body language and we really look and touch the people. I think that then becomes maybe the art of nursing.
Sarah: Very true. It’s more than what the lab values tell us. Our patients know their bodies and they know when something’s wrong and we have to remember to listen to them.
Jamie Davis: So why is it do you think that nurses are always the ones that we see out on these peripheral edges of society and the population in the world? Even here in the US, nurses tend to lead the way in public health initiatives into a rural and backwoods areas. What is it about the nursing practice that makes that the case?
Susan: That’s a good question. I think our connection with humanity, although, I will say that the trips that we have started, we bring medical students and nursing students. So that we have this collaboration going on in practice. We end up with better patient outcomes and we also end up with a change in how nurses view physicians and how physicians view nurses. I know one of the med students just wrote me and said after being on their trip, he’s changed his major from a specialty to family practice. So I think once we get them there, that we can see that same change take place.
Jamie Davis: Sarah, any thoughts about that?
Sarah: I think that in order to be a nurse you have to want to be a caregiver and accept people at their worst honestly. They’re sick. They don’t feel well. Nobody’s personality is fantastic when you don’t feel well. Honestly, those people who are living on the outskirts are homeless or living in the slums have a similar need to be taken care. And our personality as nurses drive that caretaking. And so we are truly just the people who take care of the people. And those people in Africa and the homeless areas in the cities, they’re the people who need to be taken care of. I feel like that’s why you go into nursing, is to take care of those people and all people.
Susan: Yes. I think nursing is more than just diagnostics. That it is an art and sometimes, we, in general, may forget that. But I think that the people that we talk about are the ones that have taken that art of nursing to heart. Now I kind of think of Florence Nightingale and the lantern and the Statue of Liberty and the Torch and “Bring me your downtrodden, bring me your weary.” That’s what we, as nurses, are willing to do, “Bring those to us but let us serve you.
Jamie Davis: As we wrap up, because we can probably sit here and talk about this all day. I’m just fascinated with the stories you’ve been able to tell, just in the brief time we’ve been here together. There are other nurses and even nursing students listening to this, what advice would you give to one of them that maybe a trip like this comes along that they have an opportunity either as a nurse or as a nursing student to go and step out of their comfort zone and have an opportunity to give back in this type of situation. What advice would you offer to them?
Sarah: I’ve actually, had several of the students at school come talk to me about it and say, “Oh, I really want to go. I’m so scared.” And I tend to tell them, “Go ahead and do it. Don’t be scared. The fear is healthy. It’s unknown. It’s uncomfortable. But it will change your life and it will change your world. If you can make it happen, give there because you will change the life of every other person.”
Susan: That’s why I end up with so many people flying for Kenya because Sarah is down in Phoenix telling all this people to apply.
Sarah: I’m making your life harder.
Susan: I think you are. We’re just fine. No, I like that. I tried to be deadly serious and totally honest when I speak to students or to people at in-the-outside that are interested in trips like this. I tell them about the challenges. Tell them about coming back absolutely exhausted. For example, the last trip when we were in Kenya, we were there for two weeks and doing clinical. We treated over 3,000 individuals at that time. So we work very, very hard as we do these clinics. But you come back, you’re exhausted, you can barely keep your eyes open and within a few weeks, you’re wondering when can you go back? It changes you or transforms you that much that you jump at the chance to serve the people again. The people I think are the driving force that bring us back to the Kenya and so many of the developing countries. The students that have gone, they come back as RN. They come back and they pay again. They come up with more money to go on a trip again. One of the former students, paid to go as a student, had just gotten married and for her honeymoon, she and her new husband are spending their honeymoon money to come back to Kenya and participate in another trip working two weeks in the slum. That is incredible to me when I meet people like that.
Make sure you check out the entire December, 2013 issue of Nursing Notes, where we look at nurses giving back to the communities around them. You can read the entire issue online at www.discovernursing.com and don’t miss the other Nursing Notes Live episode this month bringing you another panel discussion on nurses who give back to their communities. In that episode we’ll have University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill nursing professor Megan Williams and one of her former students, trauma center nurse Lindsey Lang as they share with us a project that provided nutritious food and financial support to a local food bank for senior citizens. You’ll find this and other episodes of Nursing Notes Live in the podcast area on iTunes.