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UCPS school nurses help cholera patients in Haiti over holidays

Four Union County Public School nurses gather for a quick photo after their arrival in Haiti. Pictured are, from left, are Jane Thompson, the UCPS school nurse supervisor; Angel Bunce, school nurse at Monroe High School; Wendy Duemmler, school nurse at Stallings and Hemby Bridge Elementary schools; and Fran Hoover, school nurse at Sun Valley High School. (Fran’s husband, Monroe doctor Charles Hoover, also traveled with the group, but is not pictured).

The cholera outbreak in Haiti has claimed more than 3,750 lives and infected more than 200,000 people. Four UCPS school nurses joined the worldwide effort to fight the deadly outbreak, spending their holidays in makeshift hospital tents nursing the sick in Haiti.

“I really believe there are no accidents in life,” said Jane Thompson, the UCPS school nurse supervisor. “I prayed before I went that if God wanted me to go, he would open the doors for me to go, but if he didn’t want me to go, he would close those doors. The doors kept opening and before I knew it, I was sitting on a plane going to Haiti.”

Those doors remained open not only for Thompson, but also for three other UCPS school nurses and a Monroe doctor. Even though Thompson was nervous about the trek into cholera-plagued Haiti, she felt confident it was the right thing to do.

“When you’re led by God to do something, even if you’re afraid, the courage comes,” she said. “That’s what courage is – even though you’re afraid, you just do it anyway. I felt He was holding me in His hands regardless of what happened.”

Had Thompson gotten sick, she said it would have been part of the bigger plan for her and she would have been okay with that. “I knew I would be cared for if I got cholera. I was sure in the right place for it,” she said smiling.

Monroe High School nurse, Angel Bunce, who had gone to assist in the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti last summer, initiated the trip to Haiti.

“When I received an email from Samaritan’s Purse regarding an urgent need for medical personnel in Haiti to treat the cholera victims, I knew I had to go,” Bunce said. “I knew as a nurse, I had the knowledge, the skills, the financial means, and the time off of work to go: no excuses. Besides, with all my heart I wanted to go back to help the people of Haiti.”

Thompson, who accepted Bunce’s invitation to go to Haiti, invited other school nurses to join the effort. Accepting the call were Fran Hoover, the school nurse at Sun Valley High School; Fran’s husband, Monroe Doctor Charles Hoover, and Wendy Duemmler, a school nurse at Stallings and Hemby Bridge Elementary schools.

The Union County team left for Haiti Dec. 27, 2010, and returned Jan. 4, 2011. Upon arrival, the group was separated; Thompson, Duemmler and Bunce going to the hospital in City Soleil, while Dr. Hoover and his wife, Fran, went to a hospital in Bercy.

Thompson said each hospital, which was basically a large tent, contained 75 to 100 patients daily. “They were very functional as hospitals, but very rudimentary,” Thompson said.

Conditions at the hospitals were very basic. Patients had to lie on wooden beds or army cots. Because of the severity of the diarrhea, a hole was cut in the center of the cot and a pan placed underneath for the frequent defecation.

“The cots were 18 inches apart from each other,” Thompson said. “There was little privacy. It’s a very humbling disease to have. It brings you down to raw existence. There’s no room for any pride with it.”

Cholera is caused by a water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. It is transmitted when contaminated human fecal matter gets into water, food or onto someone's hands. Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization, provides physical aid to victims of war, poverty, natural disaster and disease.

Bleach kills the bacteria, so there was actually bleach in the mats that the medical staff walked through. They also used a Clorox solution to frequently wash their hands. “I will never again smell Clorox without thinking of Haiti,” she said.

There were hand-washing stations, but the nurses and doctors never touched the faucets. Haitians were stationed at these stations to turn on and off the water to further prevent spread of cholera.

Bunce was assigned to work triage. This is the first line of defense for patients, the first medical help they get when they come to the hospital. “I saw mothers carry their babies through black nights, over mountains, through the slums and rocky terrain in hopes someone at Samaritan’s Purse could help their baby survive,” Bunce said.

“Obviously, watching a baby or child be so near to death, then to watch their little eyes lids flutter ever so slightly after getting the IV fluid, is extremely rewarding,” Bunce added. “You knew they were going to be ok. Being able to give those babies and children back to their mothers alive was a feeling I can never explain. So many miracles and I still can't believe I was there to witness them.”

One of the surprising things Thompson found was the attitude of the Haitians in spite of the devastation of the past year. “There is no looking to the future,” she said. “They’re just making it through the day, finding food for themselves for today. There is no talking about next week. They just hope they can make it through the day with food in their belly.”

Even though conditions were brutal, Thompson said she was amazed at the people’s attitude. “I was surprised with how resilient the people were,” she said. “There were smiles on their faces. They were so grateful we were there. They would smile and thank us. They had such gratitude for us being there.”

Haitian evangelists came by the hospitals each day and held worship for the patients. “Every day they would walk through and there would be a time of singing hymns,” she said. “They were the same songs that we sing, but they would be sung in Creole. We would sing along, but in English. We all worshipped together although we were from different parts of the world and different cultures. It was as big of an experience as I’ve ever had in any church I’ve ever been to.”

Thompson’s attitude about her experience in Haiti evolved over the course of the week. “The first two days, I thought, ‘This is going to be a long week.’ As we got to the end of the week, however, I was ready to stay longer. I had come to know the Haitian people, even learned a few words of Creole, like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ At the end of the week, I felt time had gone by too fast. I was ready to stay longer. The hardest part for me was leaving the people. I look at my watch now that I’m home and say, ‘This is what’s going on at the hospital now.’ You can’t go into the relief effort and not leave part of your heart there.”

When Thompson hears about the cholera outbreak in Haiti now, it’s personal for her. “Cholera now has faces and names for me. It’s more personal. That’s what makes it special – the patients and staff. I have a new family in Haiti. God put a lot of people in my heart.”


Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Jan 18, 2011 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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