SN Alumna Shares Story of Establishing Health Care in Haiti Village


In a talk that blended practical advice, humor, and big-picture issues, an alumna of The College of New Rochelle's RN-BSN program shared her experiences in establishing a sustainable health care system in a Haiti village at the School of Nursing's Fall 2013 Global Health Conference.

The event opened with a moment of silence for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, driving home the importance of disaster preparedness, and the need for a plan to provide help in the wake of such tragedies.

This past February, Darcel M. Reyes traveled to Fonfrede, in Les Cayes, with fellow volunteer nurses from the City University of New York; public health researchers from Smith College; CapraCare, a nongovernmental agency; and several other volunteers.

Reyes graduated summa cum laude from the School of Nursing's RN-BSN program in 1996. She has a master of science in nursing, is a board-certified adult nurse practitioner, and a specialist in the care of people with HIV.

"I am in awe of your compassion for others, which is part of the mission of our college," said Dr. Jane Slagle, director of the RN-BSN Program. "It makes you truly a CNR nurse."

Reyes opened her keynote address, "Global is the New Local," with a brief history of global health. In the first half of the 20th Century, what was then called international health had an "us vs. them" mentality. This mostly involved rich countries helping poorer ones to serve colonial interests.

The advent of the "peace and love" ethos of the 1960s and 70s, along with the emergence of worldwide epidemics of HIV, flu strains, and the like, "we began to realize it is not just happening to them over there," Reyes said. "We weren't exempt from it."

In the 21st Century, global health now encompasses international health policies, medical tourism, medical missions, and world responses to natural disasters.

For Reyes' team, the focus in Haiti was to create something long-term. "How can you make the people there own it?" she said. The challenges were many -- not least of which was that the 2010 earthquake destroyed the country's only nursing school and killed most of its second-year nursing class.

They started with the youngest patients, registering every child so they could start a medical record and could receive continuous care. The team also acquired commitments from local professionals -- two doctors and two nurses now visit the village twice a month.

The mission also held separate sessions for teens, and Reyes said the younger volunteers were really useful in communicating with this population.

Malnutrition was a major issue for children. "They were hungry and dehydrated. Water was very precious."

Next, they engaged the adult population, whose major health problems were heart disease and diabetes, along with some cases of tuberculosis. Often this meant interviewing entire families.

Reyes offered advice to nurses who might take part in medical missions in other, perhaps less-developed countries. "It's not America," she said. "I love indoor plumbing," but volunteers might have to use outhouses, go without air-conditioning, or eat unfamiliar food.

A coffee lover, Reyes made sure to bring instant coffee on her mission. She brought fruit and candy to hand out to whoever wanted them, but "nobody touched my coffee," she said emphatically. "It's important to have fun and relieve stress."

Reyes said her experience in Haiti forced her to recognize that she had leadership skills from her training as a nurse. She exhorted the crowd of students in Romita: "If someone tells you they believe in you, believe them and lead. Every single one of you is learning to be a leader, and don't you forget that."