Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Overflowing compassion” in Haiti

Comparing Port-au-Prince to Dresden, Debbie Wimmer, ’83 M.S.N., CRNP, described the devastation in Haiti as if it was bombed. “It was the most intense sensory experience I have ever had…the sights, the smells, the sounds,” she recalls.

Wimmer, assistant clinical professor at the College of Nursing and a pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP), departed Philadelphia on Valentine’s Day weekend to travel to Haiti to volunteer for 10-days at Hospice St. Joseph (HSJ) which serves the Christ Roi community of Port-au-Prince. She was part of a group of nurses, PNPs, physicians and lay volunteers whose efforts were sponsored by Medicines for Humanity which has a long association with HSJ. Global health challenges are not new to Wimmer who has traveled around the world with Operation Smile to places such as China, Ethiopia and Cambodia and leads senior nursing students during global health and multicultural experiences on the Western Shoshone Native American reservation in Elko, NV and in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic.

Wimmer was connected to Haiti through fellow alumna and PNP Geri O’Hare ’85 B.S.N., M.S.N., R.N., CRNP who also accompanies the Villanova group to the Dominican Republic and completed a year of service in Haiti. She speaks the native Kreyol and is the Caribbean Program Director for the Global Health initiatives of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the vice chair of the Board of Directors for HSJ.

Sleeping in tents and working in a small, makeshift clinic, the PNPs offered primary care to area residents. Care involved “treating acute illness and traumas, infections and dehydration, severe malnutrition, caring for moms and newborns, treating and preventing parasites...,” recalls O’Hare. “It was and is the stripped down essence of nursing and medicine...the science and art of compassion pressed down and was intense,” she notes.

Wimmer says, “You take it one patient at a time and do what you can.” Many children had rashes and bug bites from living outside and nearly everyone had a cough related to respiratory infections and malnutrition. Everyone generally got one meal a day of rice and beans.

Wimmer brought supplies including a baby scale and measuring board to assist with identifying malnourished children in the community. Likening the situation to Ethiopia, the trends she noted in charting weight-for-height indicated many children were severely malnourished. They spent time rehydrating children who were weaned too early from breast milk with an oral electrolyte solution. The PNPs created an “ICU” (a chair on the sidewalk) for Wimmer’s first patient, an infant, several months old, dying of dehydration and malnutrition, until she could be admitted into a hospital. One child, a two year old girl, was so anorexic and lethargic that she did not know what to do with a peanut butter cracker that Wimmer gave her from her bag. The mother took it for later.

The PNPs traveled into the surrounding area to look for psychological support resources from other volunteer groups for their patients. Many had psychosomatic complaints such as stomach aches, insomnia and headaches. Wimmer counseled them about normal reactions to “an enormous trauma.” “They are stunned” she recalls. As difficult as it was, Wimmer says she was energized by the positive experience. Of being a nurse, she notes, “It’s great to have a gift, to be able to help.”

Today, Barbara Ott, PhD, RN, an associate professor in the College of Nursing who also travels the globe with Operation Smile, has left for Haiti for a 10-day volunteer tour with that organization. Much of what they are doing now focuses on debriding wounds of infected tissue and revising amputations because of an operative site that became infected or has dead tissue. Check back for updates on her story.

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