Last spring, Emergency Department nurse Jennifer Verstreken, MBA, MSN, RN, participated in a mission trip to Cambodia with the Oregon-based organization Project Helping Hands, a partner of the Emergency Nurses Association. She shares her account of the mission and reflections on nursing practice.
By Jennifer Verstreken, MBA, MSN, RN
To say this mission trip has changed who I am is an understatement. I had wanted to do a mission for many years. I struggled with the decision between volunteering in foreign lands when there is so much disparity and remaining grounded in the needs of my own community. I chose to celebrate my 20-year jubilee in nursing with the seemingly unselfish act of dipping my toe in the pond of global health. Little did I know how quickly I would be ready to jump in the deep end.
I could tell stories of the long flights, the jet lag, the consequence of an American gut flora, heartbreaking patient cases, dusty bumpy roads, unique local food choices, oppressive heat, limited resources, the heavenly taste of an iced latte from a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere, the background stories of the volunteer interpreters from the local NGO, or the shoeless children who watched us in wonder every day. Instead, I choose to tell you of my team.
I believe there is a time in a nurse’s career where the mind transitions from a working nurse to a professional nurse. This is the point where the nurse has a strong mastery of their skills and no longer views his or her day as a checklist of tasks that must be completed but rather an opportunity to coordinate the care for an individual whose health has strayed from baseline. The professional nurse understands the evidence that drives the intervention choices; the professional nurse independently solicits consults from those critical to the multidisciplinary team, such as wound care, social work, care coordination or clinical pharmacy. The professional nurse supports his or her own growth and the growth and development of his or her colleagues.
I became a professional nurse seven years into my career. I stepped laterally out of the freedom of travel nursing and vertically into my first leadership role. I worked for an organization that embodied what it means to be a professional nurse. I was blessed with a mentor who supported me, encouraged me and never belittled my missteps.
Fast forward to CB19, the code name for our Cambodia mission trip. With butterflies that would rival the Mexican monarch migration, I met the first team member. Our bond was instant and firm, like superglue between your index finger and thumb. The next week was filled with stories of our lives, experiences that brought us to this moment and our career paths. We discussed where we fit in the need for global health and how to meet the needs of the locals rather than tick the boxes of a Western agenda. We peeled the onion of nursing and examined it layer by layer. We removed the roadblocks in our profession over electrolyte-replacement drinks and protein bars, all while taking notes on napkins.
Then our team fell sick. Our fierce team of 13 fell prey to gastrointestinal distress. We ended up leaving three nurses behind, my roommate included, to recuperate with the creature comforts of the organized city. The team limped forward, many still laying low with tenuous tummies. Enter my second roommate.
We bonded over ciprofloxacin, metronidazole, ibuprofen and diphenhydramine. We are both emergency nurses; me as an MSN and she as an NP. I watched her critically think through the appropriate pediatric dosing for antibiotics and then be forced to revise the ideal plan due to limited resources. I watched her evaluate patients referred by the nurses in the clinic. I watched her support the younger nurses through teaching moments and encourage those of us who were new to missionary work. I watched her make a difference. Feeling the impact this advanced practice nurse was making sparked something within, repeatedly begging the question, ‘Can you do more, too?’
Fast-forward again. Six weeks back on terra firma. The jet lag has passed; the fog of reintegration depression has lifted; eyes have dried from the daily vulnerability of foreign travel, limited resources and health care disparity. I have been left with a camera full of photos, a heart full of memories, a new group of friends and a mind racing with possibility of answering the question, ‘Can I do more?’