April 09, 2009
TC3 nursing students help women in Nicaragua
18 students aid women giving birth in hospitals, assess health of children in an orphanage
DRYDEN — Even after 15 years, Donna Nielsen cannot believe what she finds when she escorts her Tompkins Cortland Community College nursing students to Nicaragua during winter break.
Women deliver babies without painkillers, not making a sound. Nurses use a tube to clear mucous from newborn babies’ noses — in one case using the same tube for seven years. Young men are paralyzed from diving for lobster and coming up from the depths too fast. Doctors are thrilled when the students bring medical supplies, even common pain medicine, from New York state.
Nielsen brought 18 students to an autonomous region on the country’s northeast coast, with fellow faculty Paula Moore, who is a nurse-midwife, and Joanne Speicher. Nielsen’s husband, Karel DeSutter, also came.
The group stayed in the region, which is occupied by indigenous people known as Miskito, for two weeks in early January. The students visited Puerto Cabezas, a village of 30,000 people that is the region’s capital, and several remote villages.
They worked in local hospitals with women giving birth, assessed the health of children in an orphanage, held clinics for men in a prison and for people in a remote village, and taught women not to tolerate domestic abuse.
They presented posters about their trip at a Cornell University conference on interservice learning on March 27.
“Doctors told us, ‘You don’t know what this means to us’ when we bring supplies,” said Nielsen, a TC3 nursing professor. ‘We could never afford this.’ It translates into lives saved.”
Nielsen started the program after visiting the region in 1994 to contact local health officials.
The program is worth six credits. The students research medical issues and study Spanish before the trip, then keep a journal.
This time they brought sterile gloves, aspirator tubes for removing mucous from newborns’ noses, and drugs such as Ibuprofen and Tylenol. They also brought foam for the wheelchairs of young men left paralyzed by diving for lobsters. The divers get the “bends” by returning to the surface too quickly from the depths of the ocean.
The lobster divers of Nicaragua and Honduras have become known as the equivalent of miners with black lung disease or other abused workers. They work 12 to 17 hours, diving either without oxygen tanks or diving with tanks but not taking enough time between dives. A recent story by the Tierramerica news agency said lobster diving causes about 50 deaths per year and has left about 4,200 divers paralyzed.
“There is a hyperbolic chamber (for decompression) but it doesn’t always work, so these men are left paralyzed below the waist,” Speicher said “But they are so poor, and unemployment is at 90 percent, this is all they can find for work.”
Even three students in the group who were natives of Ecuador, Kenya and the Congo were shocked by the poverty they found, especially women giving birth without painkillers.
“My country is poor but I never saw that,” said Ecuador native Maria Sokolova. “And there was no crying or screaming.”
Student Megan Redd said hospital patients must bring their own sheets to the hospital and often have to wait to get bus fare home. She said the group visited villages so remote they might as well have been islands.
They took a boat to the village of Wawa Bar, where they talked to herbalists and healers who use native herbs to do medical work. One herb stops hemorrhaging during childbirth. Moore said it takes a while to work but is better than a two-hour boat ride to a hospital.
The TC3 students helped to dedicate a building donated as a women’s shelter. They spoke with girls and women about refusing to tolerate beatings, while the men in the TC3 group discussed these issues with the village’s men.
“These women thought being abused was just part of life,” said student Meaghan Race. “A lot of women want change but don’t know they can talk about it. We taught them to empower themselves.”
Sokolova served as Spanish translator and the group had a Miskito translator as well.
The Miskito region is on the other side of Nicaragua from Managua, the capital city. Between the two are hundreds of miles without people.
“The area is so remote, medical supplies are delivered only once a month,” Moore said.
The students examined about 250 people at three clinics.
Redd said the orphanage, in Puerto Cabezas, was partly for children left behind as their parents went to the United States or elsewhere in Central America in search of work. The students played with the children, besides seeing how healthy they were.
Nielsen said the annual trip is open to community members.
“Seeing the way people struggle there doesn’t get any easier, even with the years,” Nielsen said. “I’ve seen lots of new things in the western regions, like roads and airports and malls and hotels, but nothing changes in the east. For my students, going there changes them forever.”
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