Creating access to health care, especially in impoverished nations, can take time. It requires a commitment for the long haul, sometimes more than a decade or even an entire generation.
At the recent Global Health Summit held on campus, College of Nursing students and community members learned how nurses play a leading role—as they deliver over 90% of the direct hands-on health care—from keynote speakers, Ret. Rear Admiral Julia Plotnick and Dr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer for Partners in Health.
The documentary, “Bending the Arc,” was shown and featured the evolution of Partners in Health, a leading health care organization advocating for and serving people in the most impoverished regions of the world. The summit concluded with a panel of College of Nursing faculty and students discussing their experiences in the Azores, Haiti, and Mississippi.
Dr. Nancy Street, the Julia and Harold Plotnick Professor of Global Nursing and coordinator of the summit, welcomed the students.
“In the coming years, you will join a profession that represents the largest sector of the health care workforce,” she said. “Whether your work is in Haiti, Glendora, Mississippi, Mass General or Lahey Hospital, Charlton or St. Luke’s, Mercy Meals or an emergency room on the Cape, you are the gateway to the system and represent the face of health care across the globe.”
Training nurses led Dr. Plotnick around the world as assistant surgeon general for the U.S.
“As a nurse in the Public Health Service, I was privileged to be given several international assignments. They would call in times of great upheaval like famine, war, genocide,” Plotnick said. “The phone call would go something like this: ‘We think we should send a good nurse, and she can sort it out and decide on next steps.’ Sometimes I was that nurse.”
Plotnick remembers arriving in Romania in 1990 following the assassination of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to assess the situation of 12,000 orphans. A “60 Minutes” documentary had exposed horrific conditions in Romanian orphanages. Plotnick received her assignment the next day.
Conditions in the orphanage were shocking: 2-3 babies in each bed, one hand and one leg tied to the rails, changed once a day, and sometimes kept in the dark.
Even more shocking to Plotnick was learning that the last class of nurses had graduated from hospital training schools 14 years earlier. Nurses received some training in high school, but learned mainly by watching others.
The scope of Plotnick’s work suddenly changed. She would do what she could for the orphans, but the most important task at hand was reestablishing nursing as a profession.
With millions of dollars in donations and the help of U.S. and worldwide organizations, the Romanian Nurses Association was admitted to membership in the International Council of Nurses 6 years later. In all, Plotnick made 26 visits to Romania over 12 years.
“I had to stay for a long time. Giving of yourself is a gift. None of us do it alone,” Plotnick told the student nurses.
Nurses rely on proximity
Mukherjee, who has worked in global health for decades, spoke of the inequalities in access to health care—at home and across the globe—based on her experiences with Partners in Health (PIH).
For example, the difference in average life expectancy between a resident of the U.S. and Sierra Leone is 30 years.
“Every person in every country deserves the right to health care,” Mukherjee said. “That 30 years is the impact of racism, of poverty, of structures that keep people from access to health care. We see that all around the world. If we don’t understand how this happens, we can’t understand how to fix it.”
Working with governments to help their citizens and training the next generation of health care workers are important areas of focus of PIH. “What we want for the 21st century is a new world where we are committed to supporting each other for the long haul. You have to look at providing health care for all as a generational challenge. We are staying until the task is done.”
Mukherjee credited nurses for the critical role they play in providing health care and the impact they can make in short intervals. “Nurses rely on proximity to suffering, to families, and to the impact of one on many,” she said.
PIH has grown from a small organization to 17,000 staff, 98% of whom are local nationals. When they began, less than 50,000 people received treatment for HIV/AIDS. Now 21.7 million receive free treatment.
“It’s about a movement of people who care, who can go into the 21st century and make the world more fair and just,” said Mukherjee.
Students and faculty discuss their gloal public health experiences
During the panel discussion, senior nursing students Ashley Cheetham '19, Amanda Feno '19, and Jenna Kennally '19, and faculty Dr. Maryellen Brisbois and Lecturers Shelley Lynch and Paula Walsh discussed their experiences with disparities in health care during their service trips.
“You can start at home,” said Lynch, “and look at poverty in your own backyard.”
Plotnick and Street recommended that students interested in global health travel with an organization with a sustained commitment to a region.
Idea for summit was student-driven
Students were eager for a summit focusing on health care for all based on their experiences serving communities in need across the globe. Cheetham, Feno, and Kennally travelled with their faculty during spring break last year.
Cheetham, also president of the Student Nurses Association, worked in a clinic operated by Partners in Development (PID) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Students worked with Haitian staff and medical teams at the Well Child Clinic and helped to build homes for families supported by PID.
“I left the summit feeling even more inspired and motivated,” said Cheetham. “Hopefully, this summit will motivate the student nurses who attended to continue to address these public health concerns and advocate for their patients and communities, both locally and globally.”