As a palliative care specialist and former Navy nurse with more than 25 years of experience, I have been lucky to bring my skills to countries around the world as a volunteer with Project HOPE.
I’ve done a fair amount of disaster response, deploying with Project HOPE to Texas after Hurricane Harvey as well as Haiti, Japan and the Philippines in the past. As a disaster response nurse, I’ve overseen disaster management training programs and supported long-term health programs that evolved from those disaster response activities.
I’ve also been able to use my palliative care specialty to train other nurses. In 2016, I volunteered in China, organizing End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium training for more than 90 nurses at the Wuhan University HOPE School of Nursing. I was drawn to the idea of teaching again during the Pacific Partnership in 2017.
The Pacific Partnership is an opportunity to partner with the United States Navy to implement side-by-side trainings with local health care professionals. Being on a Navy ship getting to teach others was a feeling like no other, so I just knew that I had to return to Vietnam again this year for the 2018 Pacific Partnership deployment.
Being a palliative care nurse, I was assigned this year to the oncology floor where I worked with doctors and nurses to care for one patient at a time. I also spent time every day training other nurses on palliative care techniques. There is a huge need for palliative care learning, especially for nurses, so helping them learn how to provide well-rounded care to the patients was incredibly rewarding.
To me, one of the most important things I can do as a nurse is listen. In Vietnam, I would sit and talk to the patients and ask them what was important to them. Every female patient I talked to started crying during our conversations because no one had really talked to them before about their future, fears or options. I tried to be a role model for the medical staff, showing them that it’s important for the patients to have these conversations instead of avoiding them.
For instance, I met with a 53-year-old woman who had bilateral breast cancer. In Vietnam, breast cancer cases are often much more advanced than in the U.S. The woman was getting chemotherapy, but the prognosis was poor.
I met with her a couple times and we really bonded. She was alone with her 15-year-old daughter and trying to make ends meet despite being sick. With her in the hospital, her daughter was forced to try and hold things together and home. I just felt so much sadness for the family, and for the woman in particular. I knew that just being able to talk to someone would be therapeutic because no one else had asked her for her story yet. And sometimes getting to tell someone your story is just as therapeutic as medicine. Even though I couldn’t fix her, I couldn’t make the cancer go away, allowing her to talk and express her concerns was powerful.
The most impactful thing we can do as medical volunteers is send the message that someone cares. In Vietnam, I saw how the patients felt that and knew it to be true. So educating other health care providers on the power of palliative care and giving them skills that can make a long-lasting difference is one of the biggest things I love about working with Project HOPE.
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