Spring break no day at the beach for nursing students

March 31, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

MONT ALTO, Pa. - Three Penn State Mont Alto students spent spring break in Jamaica, but they weren't soaking up sun on the beach. They worked 18-hour days, endured 90-degree weather and went to class every evening.

Amy Deardorff, 28, of Fairfield, Pa., and Saundra Sleighter Henry, 50, and Bonnie McMullen, 52, both of Chambersburg, traveled under the Pennsylvania State University Nursing Study Aboard program. All are registered nurses studying for their Bachelor of Science degree.

Each year, the program - designed by their instructor, Dr. Cheryl Hettman of PSU's Fayette campus - takes students to the Mustard Seed Community, a Catholic mission in Kingston, Jamaica. Founded in 1978 by Dr. Gregory Ramkissoon, a Catholic priest who now serves as chairman of the community's executive committee, Mustard Seed cares for more than 300 abandoned children with disabilities at several sites in Jamaica.


Along with five other nursing students from other PSU campuses, the women were based at one of the sites, Sophie's Place. The children cared for at Sophie's Place are so severely disabled that "the teachers come to them," McMullen said.

"Some of the students in other facilities go out to school and are taught daily living skills so that they can function in society," McMullen said.

The nurses visited all of Mustard Seed's facilities, teaching mouth care to the children, and instructing the caregivers on range-of-motion and behavior modification.

The children are well cared for, the women said, by staff members who work 15-hour shifts and have only limited supplies.

Each student was responsible for transporting one "medical tote," McMullen said, which could contain up to 70 pounds of medicines, dressings, hygiene items and food supplements.

A Mustard Seed residence called Matthew 25:40 houses 24 children, age 13 and younger, who have HIV/AIDS.

"AIDS has a very high stigma there," Deardorff said, "and the medicines for it are expensive. The government supplements (Mustard Seed) only minimally."

The mission is run largely on donations, she added.

"They depend on whatever groups happen to come down," she said.

The group had a thrift shop, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan. They also make and sell pottery to support the work.

"Jamaica is a third world country," Henry said. "There is no middle class; people are either very wealthy or very poor." However, the children they worked with were happy and "always smiling," Henry said.

"All they wanted was love. They never fight," she said.

Temperatures were 90 degrees in the shade, and the buildings had no screens or air conditioning. There was no hot water, either, and cold water could be had only a few hours per day because of damage from Hurricane Ivan. A hospital they visited was like "going back to the Florence Nightingale era," Henry said. "It was light, airy and open, and the equipment was primitive."

The week was "life-altering," Henry said. "These kids have so little, and their hearts are open and they are so giving. They always have a smile. We give them a lollipop and it's like we gave them a million dollars."

McMullen agreed.

"We all do nursing because we care about people. Going there deepened our compassion for the clients we take care of," she said.

Henry and McMullen work full time at South Mountain (Pa.) Restoration Center.

Deardorff, who works in a heart-monitoring unit at Chambersburg Hospital, said she never has taken care of children, so the trip was "a whole new experience. It was extremely rewarding, taking care of children and learning how other people live."

The students will earn three credits for the course. They studied the culture and health care of Jamaica before they left, and still have a paper and a presentation to complete.

Even before they left Jamaica, "we were all asking, 'When can we come back?'" Deardorff said. "Getting up at 4:30 and taking a cold shower wasn't hard at all, compared to what we brought back," she said.

"The spiritual aspect was new to me - how much (the Jamaicans) rely on their faith. They have nothing, and they are not concerned. They feel God will provide, and somehow they make it," she said.

For more information about the Mustard Seed Mission, go to

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