VICTORIA, B.C. (ASRN.ORG) --Jessica Harper sat listening to a translator explain why a patient’s two-month-old baby was sick.
The mother wasn’t breast-feeding. She had no money for bottles or formula. In fact, she didn’t have money for anything. The seven other children she was caring for created financial demands she could not meet.
With a bit of help from the translator, Harper sought to learn more about the child and what was wrong.
After a tearful explanation, she learned that the woman wasn’t the mother of the baby at all. She was his aunt, and had been taking care of him since her sister died shortly after childbirth.
This was just one of many such stories Harper had heard that day, working as a nurse in a clinic in Grand Goave, Haiti, a town about three hours southeast of the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince.
It was her second trip to the oft-troubled island, working with a Christian non-profit group called Hungry for Life International—but her first since the earthquake of January 2010 that left an estimated one million people homeless and 250,000 dead.
“When we were leaving this time, I broke down,” says the New West resident, who works in a public health unit in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Lost it. Went and locked myself in a bathroom stall and lost it.”
Hungry for experience
Harper says she knew from a young age that she wanted to travel and help people, and while in high school considered a teaching career. Closer to graduation, though, she had a change of heart and decided on the nursing program instead.
Harper graduated in the spring of 2006, and while many classmates hit the classifieds looking for work around the province, she boarded a plane to Haiti with Hungry for Life. Upon her return, Harper was hired at her first job as a public health nurse—a position aimed at providing education on topics like disease prevention and support services to women, youth and families—in Vancouver.
But she wouldn’t sit still for long. In February 2007, less than a year after getting her first in-Canada gig, she went on a three-week stint to the Philippines. On this trip, Harper, along with a team of others, helped build two rooms for a school and provided free dental, medical and immunization services in the town of Appari on the northern coast of the island nation.
Just months after that trip, she was back on the tarmac heading out on a six-month jaunt to Africa with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). There, Harpe worked in a health clinic in Nyeri, Kenya—a city in the country’s central province—where they provided health care and education for seven surrounding villages.
“In Africa, I was working as what’s called a health educator, raising awareness for topics like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. It’s what’s called a health promotion and prevention model,” said Harper.
“But, on top of the education, we did things like planting a community garden.”
Haiti trip stands out
While Harper had clocked thousands of work-related air miles by this point, it was her latest trip to Haiti, from May 18 to June 3 of this year, that has really stuck with her. She only worked for eight days, but says she and her team of two doctors and five nurses saw close to 1,000 patients during their stay.
“It was like doing general check-ups for people who had never had check-ups before,” said Harper.
“In that scenario, anything can come through the door, and it did. It was a challenge.”
On average, Harper says their team had about 12 minutes to assess each patient, tough in the best of situations—even tougher when half the time is spent talking to a translator.
Despite the obstacles, the success of the clinic has spawned discussion by Hungry for Life International about building a future full-time clinic in Haiti, something Harper says she’d be interested in helping them do.
“They would need a nurse to help set up protocols, support where necessary and host other international teams. Then we could do point of care HIV testing and other work we couldn’t do with our temporary work.”
“The key is helping, giving support. We will never get anywhere trying to offer solutions. We can help the Haitians get to the point where they can help themselves. They will be the ones to solve things. We’ll just be a part of them getting there.”
In all, Harper described the experience in Haiti as one of contrasts that made a significant impression upon her.
“(There were) fields of people living in tents. There’s just such a need there. But the hope I saw, and their love of family I’ll never forget. I had a hard time coming back to my comforts in Victoria.”
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