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The Uncommon Spring Break: Nursing a Practice of Service


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Posted: 3/16/2009

The practice of giving and the service of nursing that bring hope and health to millions run deep at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing (JHUSON). Those attributes draw a special breed of student to the undergraduate nursing program, whose commitment to caring leads many to break the spring break mold. Instead of putting a hold on learning, they devote their time in service to others in need. For some, that means teaching good health practices in rural southwestern Haiti. For others, it’s all about helping rebuild the lives and homes of Hurricane Katrina’s continuing victims. And for still others, that habit of service is being practiced closer to home in Baltimore. For each, it becomes more than an exercise in public health nursing; their service awakens them to the great disparities in the human condition.

Caring in the Caribbean 
JHUSON Assistant Professor Elizabeth Sloand, PhD RN, CRNP, has taken the school’s goal of broadening nurses engagement in global health seriously and literally. As part of her undergraduates’ public health clinical rotation, each spring she heads to Haiti with a group of students in tow. Working hand-in-hand with the Haitian Health Foundation, the students tough out language barriers and cultural differences to provide health education, outreach, screening, and care to some of the most impoverished children and youth in the western hemisphere. Students work alongside Haitian healthcare providers, sharing and learning different approaches to health and illness in a program that touches over 200,000 people in southwestern Haiti. Sloand says, “In an environment in which the high-tech doesn’t exist, the students are challenged to rely on basic nursing skills, coupled with critical thinking and problem-solving. In 10 days on the ground, they gain a real appreciation for public health nursing.” Katherine Whitlow, an undergraduate nursing student in the class of 2009 and a former Peace Corps volunteer, is enthusiastic about her upcoming Haiti experience. “Well be doing basic health screening and teaching the importance of hand-washing and good nutrition. It may seem pretty basic, but it reminds me that community health is what first drew me to nursing. Where better to practice my profession than in places like Haiti, where its needed most?” And, while they stay only 10 days, the students know the work is sustained, day-in and day-out, by the community’s own healthcare providers.

Health and Hammers in the Crescent City 
Another community benefiting from the healing, helping hands of JHUSON nursing students is the Crescent City – New Orleans, Louisiana. Eleven members of the National Student Nurses Associations Hopkins Student Nurse Relief Corps, including Mary McQuilkin, an undergraduate student in the class of 2009, are heading there to continue Corps work to help rebuild homes and lives damaged by Hurricane Katrina. They’ll work in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas of New Orleans most seriously damaged by the 2005 storm. Working with the nonprofit Lowernine.org, the JHUSON students will wield hammers and paint rollers, doing everything from mudding walls with joint compound to putting shingles on roofs to setting floor tile. Further, under the leadership of local nurses, the team will put their nursing skills to use at the Touro Infirmary emergency department, the Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic, and St. Anna’s Medical Mission Mobile Clinic. Whatever the work, the experience is irreplaceable for future nurses like McQuilkin. She notes, “Wherever our nursing practice takes us, we can use the skills of community organizing and health advocacy that we will see at work in New Orleans. Nurses can play an important role in improving the health of a community like the Lower Ninth Ward by assuring that the medical, social, and environmental needs of residents are addressed.”

Hands-on Help at Home
Being a “spring break change-maker” doesn’t require an airline flight or a bus ticket. JHUSON students and other Hopkins undergraduates who want to exercise the practice of service closer to home are participating in JHU’s week-long “Service in the City” an alternative spring break program in Baltimore.  A collaboration between the JHU Student Outreach Resource Center (SOURCE) and the Center for Social Concern, the program engages students in community service activities while allowing them to learn more about the city and to connect with people from diverse backgrounds, according to SOURCE Assistant Director Jessica Harrington, MPA. Combining a week of service projects with immersion in Baltimore culture, the program focuses on a different theme each day, from urban restoration to domestic violence; from the faces of homelessness to enhanced educational opportunity.  Each day, students from across the JHU campuses will undertake specific civic, social, and environmental services to give back to the community in which they live, study, and work and to experience the culture of Charm City beyond the confines of the campus.

For JHUSON students, the value of service to others - and the dividends it pays and pays back -cannot be denied. As President Barack Obama observed in his inaugural address: “There is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.” Dr. Sloand echoes that sentiment, saying “When it comes to these service programs, the biggest winners may be the students themselves. The habit of giving they learn only enhances their ongoing desire to give. They are changed by the experience, as nurses, as healthcare providers, and as human beings in an ever-shrinking, mutually-dependent world.”

Through experiences such as these, the uncommon spring break helps build the unparalleled character and commitment to service that is the brand of the Hopkins-trained nurse.