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“Where the unusual occurs and miracles happen.”

by Kelly Schlosser, CCON BSN student

When I first decided I wanted to take the opportunity to go on the New Orleans trip, I certainly had no idea what it entailed.  I was nervous, especially traveling down in a van with students from different cohorts.  If I could think back to a particular moment that one would say, “broke the ice,” it would be when the brake light suddenly decided to fall off and was banging against the window.  Everyone kind of looked at each other and started laughing, because it was a problem, but of all things to go wrong, no break light wasn’t going to stop us!  With a little industrial tape and the help of our Student Nurses Association President, Lauren, the issue was fixed in no time!  The rest of us gave moral support!

As we continued our drive, a lot was on my mind about the people I was going to encounter during the trip.  I had heard there was still much rebuilding needed in New Orleans, even though Hurricane Katrina hit 13 years ago, and I was wondering how I might be able help.  It was arranged for us to stay at The House of Charity, and I was wondering what it was going to be like living with nuns.  My previous encounter with nuns had only been through watching “Sister Act” and “The Sound of Music.”  However, I quickly realized that after meeting Sister Monica, Sister Vikki, Sister Peg, and Sister Claire, there is no movie or book that could even begin to explain how incredible these women are.  They mean so much to their community, and now mean so much to me.  The Sisters opened their home and welcomed us all with open hearts and open arms.  They listened when we needed to open up about our experiences from the day.  Every morning, we gathered together to talk and think about something throughout the day, one morning in particular we talked about bridges.  We were challenged to think about how we can be a bridge between vulnerable populations and the much needed medical assistance many individuals in this group may require.  Each one of the nuns had such a bright personality that could put a smile on one’s face in the midst of adversity.

During the trip, my eyes were opened to some of the reasons why there continue to be significant gaps in available medical care, even though Hurricane Katrina occurred 13 years ago.  Charity Hospital was one of the largest free hospitals in New Orleans, and provided services to many citizens in the city.  Despite having three floors in operating condition days after the hurricane, the hospital was never given the green light to reopen.  This left many residents in the area without access to medically needed care, in addition to no longer having their homes, and many times their families for support.  Although a large teaching hospital was built to replace Charity Hospital in a different area of town, barriers exist for many residents to receive services from and access to the hospital.

"As a nurse you not only have to care for your patient but now there is a new obstacle, and that is you caring for what your patient can afford.”

As part of our experience, we worked in the Daughters of Charity Clinic.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but learned a lot about the clinic from talking to the clinical pharmacist named Chayla.  She had a lot to share, but one of the most memorable things she told me was that despite the many new medications that come on the market, not a single one of her clientele has an opportunity to use anything but the bare bones of what medicine has to offer, due to prescription costs.  All the patients I saw suffered from hypertension, diabetes, or both.  Most have Medicaid, or no insurance at all, and were in medical dilemmas of what conditions are more important to treat because they could not afford all of the care they needed.

Going to a meal program at a men’s homeless shelter and serving lunch was such a bittersweet opportunity.  I loved being able to provide food to those who have none.  Everyone who received a tray was grateful for the food and thanked me.  What bothered me was the fact that a huge contributing factor to poor health is diet, and the meals served were not nutritionally well-balanced.  The first day we served jambalaya, a tiny bit of lettuce, and two giant donuts.  The second day we served fried chicken, two giant donuts, and a tiny bit of lettuce.  From performing blood pressure checks and blood sugars on many of the meal participants, we knew there were many who had elevated values that likely required both medication and healthy meals.  However, I tried to keep in mind that I had no idea when the meal program participants had a recent meal, so the ability partake in a meal and feel part of the community took priority. 

Another memorable experience was going to wash the feet of homeless individuals. Washing feet was never something I thought I would say I enjoyed doing, but I truly did.  In addition to the benefit of having their feet cared for, it provided a portal for individuals to talk about anything they wanted to open up about.  Many were grateful, and the second their feet hit the soaking tub you could see stress melt.  I never forced conversation, as I am such a talker, since I knew this was not about what I needed.  Instead, this was about what the person in front of me needed, and if that was to sit in silence, or tell me whatever was on their mind, I was there with an open heart and mind.

Life can surprise you in so many ways, and a local resident named Burnell showed us love in so many ways.  He loves his community, and has been supporting them with all he has.  The Lower 9th Ward is a place that has experienced so many hardships and tragedy after hurricane Katrina.  The community had no grocery store, so Burnell took it upon himself to open his very own.  What he has done to help his community really shows how pure of heart he is and how never giving up can make the toughest of times turn around for the better.  While working with Burnell, we were able to take blood pressure readings and blood sugar measurements for the local residents who came to the store, and help educate them about healthy food choices, smoking, and alcohol. Burnell is someone that I hope to see again, and I hope that I can help support his efforts in the future.

Fried chicken and all, we all had a blast together getting to know one another while working to help those in the communities we visited.  I want to take my experiences from this trip and act as a leader for those who have not had as many opportunities to work closely with vulnerable populations.  From the trip, I realized the importance of listening and showing someone he or she is being heard.  A patient may not have a major medical crisis but still seek care, so a health care provider might not want to listen.  However, I learned that this is when providers need to take a step back and get to the bottom of why your patient is presenting for care.  

During the trip, I also quickly realized that culture in New Orleans is beyond abundant; you can feel it, see it, smell it, and taste it.  People are very grateful, and are not giving up because of what has happened.  For example, I remember one man from the men’s homeless shelter told me that he and his family spilt when the hurricane hit, and he has never been able to find them since.  From this, I realized that providing help and health care is not just about placing a bandage over a wound, because you cannot do that when the wound is internal and emotional.  I know that mental health problems are extremely prevalent, especially after tragedy, and they are  often over looked.  I will also keep this in mind in my future career as a nurse.  

Overall, I know that this trip changed my happiness.  It seems like a weird thing to say, but I had really been down until I went on the trip.  I think I realized that when I am at home with nothing to do, I do not feel like my best self.  Instead, I now know there are organizations who need volunteers and people that could use my time and my help.  This trip was eye opening, rewarding, and so much more.  I am extremely grateful for the opportunity, the forever memories, and the lasting friendships. 

“The best antidote I know for worry is work.  The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired.  One of the great ironies of life is this:  He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” – Gordon B. Hinckley