Many nurses use vacation time to help out at home and abroad, including an Edmonds ER nurse who has volunteered in Haiti, Nepal and Jordan.
It’s not unusual for nurses — whose professional skills are in demand worldwide — to spend their vacation time donating those skills in hot spots both stateside and international.
Volunteer nurses come from a variety of backgrounds, including surgical, global health, emergency and disaster response, pediatric care and women’s health.
Laura LaCasse, an Edmonds-based emergency room nurse, started donating her time on a 2013 trip to Haiti. Next, she went to Nepal, with the Snohomish-based Clarion Global Response, after the 2015 earthquake.
“People are always so happy that you’re there, and so appreciative,” LaCasse says.
Those with emergency room skills are particularly in demand, says Emily Scott, the vice president of One Nurse at a Time, a Seattle-based resource and clearinghouse for volunteer nursing opportunities with more than 450 organizations.
Nurse volunteers are typically required to be registered nurses (RNs) or advanced registered nurse practitioners (ARNPs).
In Sierra Leone, nurses treated critically ill Ebola victims, offering medicine, assessing patients and teaching infection control to local nurses.
“In my opinion, the backbone of the health work being done is by nurses,” Scott says.
At first, nurses are nervous before they board the plane. “But on day one, they light up, and by the end of the week, they’re planning their next trip,” Scott says.
Responsible volunteering means thinking about the big picture.
“We encourage them to think about the impact they’re really having, the benefit and sustainability of this work, and how they can do better next time,” Scott says. “To be thoughtful and intentional about the work they’re doing.”
Christopher Tompkins, executive director of Clarion Global Response, says “supreme flexibility” is essential in an international volunteer. “A medical volunteer, for example, might expect to sleep in the rough, filter water and eat freeze-dried food for a few nights while on a remote-access assignment,” he says.
It’s also possible that they’ll sleep in a hotel with hot showers, if supporting a displaced persons camp.
“Either way, that volunteer should anticipate that they will not likely change the world but will definitely change how they and the people they help experience the world,” Tompkins says. “There is a mutual imprint that happens between a volunteer and those they serve that may be counted among the most meaningful of human experiences.”
Nurses don’t need to book an international ticket to help. For example, Scott points to the free public health clinic that each year takes over KeyArena for three days. On one floor, individuals in need can have teeth pulled, mammograms done, X-rays and wound care, with many services offered by nurses. Another local clinic offers veterans free care. “It’s a great way to get involved,” she says.
They’re essentially people like me who fled their homes and jobs and are now living on dirt roads, in container-truck homes.” - Laura LaCasse, volunteer nurse in a Syrian refugee camp
Nurses typically pay all costs associated with volunteer opportunities themselves, including airfare, lodging and food costs — they’re donating time, money and service.
“This isn’t a vacation,” LaCasse says.
Costs can be a prohibitive expense for volunteers. However, One Nurse at a Time offers scholarships; LaCasse received a $1,000 scholarship from the organization to defray her costs for recent travel to Jordan.
While there, LaCasse worked in an emergency room for women at a Syrian refugee camp. She says working at the camp was difficult at times, as she was serving people who had once been middle-class professionals, and were now homeless.
“They’re essentially people like me who fled their homes and jobs and are now living on dirt roads, in container-truck homes, unable to leave this camp on a military base,” she says. “It gets very emotional.”
Every patient has a story of a house bombing or of a family member’s death, LaCasse says. “It’s something I never accounted for, the mental health and PTSD issues,” LaCasse says. Yet the refugees are still thankful for her presence and work, and offer to pray for her happiness and health.
LaCasse says the experience taught her something, too.
“I don’t know a lot about the Middle East, and it opened my eyes in so many ways about Arabs and Muslims,” she says. “So many of my stereotypes were busted wide open.”