Volunteer Nurse’s Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic

Image 2_copyMy niece, Hannah, a nurse in training at Creighton University, joined a medical service project in Dominican Republic where she dedicated 5 weeks to helping treat impoverished Dominicans as part of Institute for Latin American Concern Program (ILAC). During the week volunteers from the center in Santiago went to work in campos where they were housed by locals and treated like royalty. Host families insisted on providing the best they could offer and showed their gratitude in countless ways by making special treats and cleaning their guests’ clothes.

My niece’s host family, Madeline, and her husband, Chico, niece Saira 9, and daughters Maireli 4 and Mailesi 3 months lived in a tiny house smaller than Hannah’s two car garage back home in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“The living room was tiny with a small TV. Curtains separated three small bedrooms. The bathroom, connected to the house, had a toilet that didn’t flush, and the shower was a bucket of water with a drain,” Hannah explained, “The kitchen has a mini fridge, counter and stove. The dining room had a table, chairs and a china cabinet, but no china.”

Hannah, who studied at a Spanish Immersion School in the Minneapolis area until high school, found that her background in Spanish was invaluable. She interacted with the locals and took medical histories, urinary samples and treated minor illnesses with minimum equipment in rudimentary facilities.

“While another nursing student took vitals, I did the intake form, figured out the chief complaint and symptoms and did any other translating. We saw lots of skin rashes, kidney infections, colds and body aches from all the work the Dominicans do.”Image 5_copy

The most striking difference was the extent of poverty and lack of modern health care and medicine.

“Even in the best hospital in the country, everything is open – doors, windows (without screens,) and the units in ER (diabetes, labor, trauma.) There are no monitors except for ICU/NICU. Restraints are by rope and heavy weights.” Hannah wrote in her journal. “Patients were pushed around ER with entire families following and holding medical supplies. (If a patient needs medicine, a family member must purchase it outside the hospital.) Floors were torn up, paint chipped off and I never saw a nurse in a patients room.”

There were many cultural differences from diet to lifestyle. The volunteers joked about the leisurely pace of Dominican time – which meant a few hours late.

“Beautiful girls with model figures came into the clinic asking for ways to gain weight,” Hannah said. “In their culture being overweight is a sign of wealth, but we tried to tell them they were perfect as they were.”

Biggest challenges that volunteers faced included communicating with the language barrier, feeling comfortable in a different culture, and adjusting to living with lower standard of hygiene.

“Even though I never felt clean,” Hannah said, “I learned how to co-exist with spiders the size of my hands and lizards in my bed, how to throw rocks at trees to get mangoes down and how to take a bucket shower with 3 small scoops of water.”

I felt privileged that Hannah shared her journal of events with me. Even reading it made me feel ashamed. I was spoiled with riches that I no longer noticed or appreciated like indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.

Life, when stripped to bare necessities, seemed purer. Good health, family, and community matters more than material goods.Image_copy

After meeting a prosperous land owner and visiting his rice plantation, Hannah, unimpressed, wrote in her journal, “I hope that as times change and technology advances in the DR that the people will stay the same: doors are always open, people are always outside talking with neighbors, the community is your family and sometimes you sleep at your neighbors because it is just like sleeping at your grandmas.”

“All the Dominicans were so hospitable, they would do absolutely anything to make us feel comfortable and happy,” Hannah said. “They showed me how to appreciate time with people rather than things, how to slow down and how to make the most of each day.”

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  1. Love this, Patty! I’m going to print this out and stick it with my journal. Loved re-living my trip! 🙂

  2. Oh, how I love this, and feel so proud of Hannah. She is doing G-d’s work, and I hope organizations such as WaterAid can fix the water and sewage problems that people such as Hannah’s host family experience. She should write to them and request this. Great post, Pat!

  3. Bless Hannah for her sacrifices to improve the lives of others. Not many people would be so nonchalant about spiders that big! Im sure that gratitude of the Dominicans compensated for the challenging conditions. What a wonderful experience for her, one I’m sure she will never forget.

    • I loved hearing all of Hannah’s stories. Even though she says she freaked out about the spiders and lizards, one of which crawled over her face while she was sleeping, she rose up above the challenges and embraced the way of life and people.

  4. Your Hannah is a very brave and dedicated person. And let’s not forger compassionate! We need more of Hannah’s goodwill toward all in our world today…

  5. There was so much to enjoy about this post, Pat. Thanks for sharing with us. Hannah’s experience will change her life, esp. as she gets older. Twenty years ago, when my son was 15, I let him go to Mexico for three weeks. This visit was arranged by a coworker friend, who had many relatives in that country. Dan lived with 3 different families for a week each. Although they were middle class by the standards of the time and location, it didn’t compare to my son’s middle class life in America. He never forgot their kindness and hospitality; his Spanish improved to a level it never would have without the trip; and he has always been more tuned in to the realities of economic survival as a result of that trip.
    By the way, I was struck by the girls wanting to look heavier. Throughout human history, people in poor cultures have wanted to look fat as a sign of affluence, and people in rich cultures want to look thin.
    Enjoyed this post. You tell a good story.

    • Hannah has already said that the experience transformed her life. Like your son, I too, will never forget the warm welcome of my hosts in France and Germany when I first moved abroad in my globetrotting days. My mom told me that her Norwegian father was always inviting people home to dinner because he wanted to repay the kindness to others that was bestowed on him when he first moved to America. I think that generosity resonates even more so when one does not speak the host language and every gentle action is a lifeline for the “foreigner.”

  6. Thank you , Pat for sharing Hannah’s journal with us. There are so many valuable lessons here about what matters the most and it isn’t the things we surround ourselves with. It is transformational to become immersed in another culture and experience how people can thrive despite having so much less than we do. This fantastic experience will last a lifetime for Hannah. Thank you for sharing and for reminding us that the best things in life are not things.Hooray for Hannah!

    • So glad that you saw this post before you begin your pilgrimage, Kathy. With your nursing background and generous spirit, I thought you would especially enjoy reading about Hannah’s mission trip.

  7. Yes, Hannah did us proud. What a committed, courageous and compassionate young lady she is and how blessed we are to have her in OUR family. What important life lessons Hannah has reminded us of through her experience…and that is to be grateful for the joys in our lives..the people being the greatest blessing!

  8. You and your family must be so proud of Hannah, Pat! While her motives in going to the DR were most selfless, it was SHE who gained so much. Nothing like spending time away and walking in another’s moccasins to make a person appreciate what he has and realize that “stuff” isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of things.

  9. As many have said, I am sure you and your family are very proud, and for her to share that, and then you to share with us…is very humbling. My what we do take for granted….As you know differ cultures is the best experience, learning, and sharing, good for Hannah to be able to experience, and deal with such a culture shock…Luck to her as her career and schooling unfolds, thanks to you for sharing and giving us insight…

    • Thanks, Debbie. Cross cultural experiences can broaden one’s perception of the world and understanding of others and of one’s self. I will pass on your well wishes to Hannah.

  10. How courageous of Hannah to step out of her comfort zone. Sounds like she perhaps gained more than the locals did since unfortunately, many things won’t change for them, but Hannah has been forever changed by having had the experience. She will make a fantastic nurse one day soon.

    • With your medical background and cross cultural living experience, you know only too well, that in many parts of the world, health care is luxury. Like you, Hannah has that cheerful, selfless, generous spirit, perfect attributes for a career in nursing.

  11. Sista,
    AWESOME blog…you captured Hannah’s experience to a T! Yes, we are mighty proud of her and her giving and adventurous spirit! Thank you blog followers for all the cudos to Hannah and others like her who continue to pay it forward, but as so many of you recognized, Hannah received tenfold by her giving experience! May we all continue to Pay It Forward however and wherever we can!

  12. Wow, that Hannah sounds like quite the girl & very cute as well. Oh wait, I already knew that (ha-ha). We are lucky she is attending school here in Omaha though we don’t get to see her often enough. Thanks for sharing Pat, great job as always!

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