Posted by: Date: October 13, 2008 In: ,

Nurses tell of worldwide travels during panel

They’ve traveled to the far corners of the globe: Liberia, Iraq, Vietnam and Colombia. They’ve seen desperate poverty, bombed out buildings, and quite frankly, incompetent medical care. However, the four nurses, all PLU alumni who returned to talk about their experiences for Homecoming on Friday afternoon, stressed that their stories don’t end there. Ed Hrivnak, ’96, Helen Holt ’97 (pictured above), Mary Barber ’02 and Mary Beth Peterson, ’75 all told of seeing compassion, generosity, dedication and service in the countries where they worked as nurses after they left PLU to pursue their careers in nursing.

Here are some of their stories:

Helen Holt ‘97, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, said she was faced with supporting her family as a single parent in her 40s, when she decided to return to college and get her degree.

“I had four kids at home and no child support,” Holt told the audience.

She received her master’s degree from PLU on the GI bill, and soon after, found herself starting up the Columbia Gia Dinh Clinic in Vietnam. Her team found they had a shell of a building, a couple of computers and one bathroom when they arrived in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, in 1998.

Holt said she had to learn the way things were done in Vietnam very quickly. Ambulances were old VW busses, and family members were responsible for getting the patient into the hospital. Medical supplies were cheaper to pick up literally at a street market than out of a catalogue, where prices were jacked up by 300 percent.

Her staff were “voracious” learners, and quickly trained up. But she often found that doctors and nurses went right from the American equivalent of high school, straight into a specialty for the next six years. There was very little general medical or science training.

There were also the cultural differences. Doctors were expected to take one look at a patient, and know instantly what was wrong. To simply say ‘we need to do some tests,’ was to lose face. During her stay there, Holt was able to train nurses and boost their confidence, so they were no longer simply shadows of the doctors, but contributing staff in their own right.

Ed Hrivnak ’96 said he never really considered himself a writer. He just was angry and frustrated over the way the war was being portrayed in Iraq.

“I started writing because I was angry over what I was seeing on CNN,” Hrivnak said, adding that what was portrayed on television was not what he saw when he was flying injured soldiers and Marines out of the battlefields of Iraq to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Hrivnak, a professional firefighter now, and a U.S. Air Force captain with 20 years of service, urged the audience to consider writing about their experiences. There is a power in the written word that details first-hand experiences, he stressed.

Hrivnak said that because of political feelings about the Iraq War, residents in other countries feel that all Americans are Ugly Americans. And each of us, he added, has a chance to become ambassadors and change that perception.

Hrivnak gained some unexpected fame, when his e-mails and notes to home became part of the book and the documentary “Operation Homecoming” last year.

Now a firefighter with Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, Hrivnak said that his story was chosen to be one of 87 authors included in the book, culled down from 3,000 submissions. He has donated all the proceeds he’s received to charity he said.

Mary Barber ’02 said she was bit by the travel bug soon after she graduated, and found herself in Liberia teaching nursing at Cuttington University in Gbarnga. She came to a country that had been ravaged by 14 years of brutal civil war. Some of the soldiers of that war were 12-year old boys, she noted.

“Imagine the destruction you can get when you give a 12-year-old boy a gun and rocket launcher, as well as drugging him to make sure he is loyal to you,” she said.

The country suffers from 85 percent unemployment and half the population gets by on less than one dollar a day.

Barber had a hand, with other staff at the college, teaching a new generation of nurses. Most of her students had only reached the equivalent of 6th grade. But the desire to turn this country around was intense in her students, she said.

Most of the time, the nurses would be the main caregivers at the country’s hospitals, she said.

“The role of the physician often falls to the nurse,” she said. “Many of the hospitals have no doctors.”

She encouraged the audience to take mission trips overseas.

“This type of work is challenging,” she said. “But the compensation emotionally, far outweighs the challenges.”

Finally, Mary Beth Peterson ’75, talked of working in Colombia during her time in the Peace Corps between 1978 and 1980. She said that the bus driver who took the nurses to the hospital, doubled as a guard, since rebel forces often targeted Americans for kidnapping in the wild regions around Bogota.