Never Underestimate Your Impact
Over winter break, several Alverno graduate nursing students traveled to northern Mississippi to provide acute and urgent care as well as mental health services for residents of the impoverished, rural communities of Okolona and Vardaman, Miss. One of the participants, Tracy Bergum ’19, RN, MSN, (pictured above, at right) reflects on the trip’s lasting impact.
It is impossible to put into words the dichotomy between those that have the necessities for living and those that do not. One particular woman came into our clinic with three empty jugs to fill with tap water as there was no running water where she was living. Once there, I was asked to check her skin sores that were not healing.
In addition, she had recently received a note in the mail from one of her physicians requesting she call and schedule a follow-up appointment for an abnormal test result. The physician’s office had tried to contact her, but her cell phone service was disconnected, and she was unable to receive calls — just able to perform basic texting. On top of all of this, she could read words phonetically but had no idea what the words meant. She read the words aloud to me but did not comprehend them in their entirety. Once she understood the situation, using a working phone in an office, we were able to call the physician’s office and schedule her an appointment.
This was how it went for many of the clients we saw. Some needed basic advice on how to reduce their blood pressure or lose weight. However, I recall one man who, I was fairly certain, had advanced cancer that had not been diagnosed because he did not have insurance or access to care. The next town where he thought he could maybe see a doctor was 45 to 60 minutes away, and his daughter would need to drive him. This gentleman did not want to ask his daughter to take a day off of work as he was uncertain if he would be able to see a doctor due to his lack of insurance, and he did not want her to take off for nothing, which delayed his seeking needed care.
These are things we take for granted as working citizens with some sort of health insurance coverage. When we need medical care, we make an appointment. In areas of high poverty, such as Okolona, it is not just the issue of poverty. It is poverty, and literacy, and insurance, and transportation, and food security, and employment, and absenteeism from school or parent absenteeism, and even racism.
Catholic nuns hosted our Alverno group, and they were amazing. Everyone in the community knew who they were. The nuns were addressing poverty through school programming, literacy and job coaching, a sewing mission, operation of a thrift store and a coffee shop (from which we operated the clinic). They understood that in order to improve the lives of many in their community, it was necessary to address poverty at many levels. Their love and compassion for their community was very obvious from the first day we met them.
As I reflect on this trip and what I learned, I find myself thinking about a quote I have often seen in Christopher Hall. Sister Joel Read, the president of Alverno from 1968 to 2003, said the following: “Don’t ever think that something can’t be done. It can. Opportunity is everywhere.”
We always have the opportunity to make a difference wherever we go, no matter how long we are there. Alverno graduate nursing students were in Mississippi for one week, but we had the opportunity to help residents meet some very basic needs. While we were not able to provide everything they needed, we did what we could. Sometimes that was listening or educating or simply seeing the residents as fellow human beings. And, as human beings, we are all really more similar than we are different!
I think sometimes people feel that in order to do good, a gesture has to be grand. But small gestures like listening, helping with homework, tutoring, making or serving a meal have a lasting impact. Giving of oneself. Seeing a problem and trying to find a solution instead of looking the other way. That is what it is truly all about.
Now there is an opportunity to take these lessons learned and apply them. This trip has sprouted ideas for my future nurse practitioner practice that I hope will come to fruition. I now view situations through a different and more global lens, which I hope will make me a more effective practitioner in the years to come.
One does not have to go to Mississippi to find people in need, however. There are pockets of people who need help in our own communities, and we have the opportunity to make a difference. That is what education and awareness provide — the ability to spot opportunity and the ability to think globally and act locally. Never underestimate the power of giving someone your time and full attention. It makes a difference. Your opportunity is waiting!