From anesthetizing Ebola patients during the epidemic’s peak in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, to investigating universal health care standards in Seoul, South Korea, alumni and students live the Connell School’s mission to foster creative, compassionate, informed nurses who can address the health care needs of the world. Students can choose from among any of seven international study abroad programs, which vary in length from a week to a semester. Or they can apply for Advanced Study Grants that fund nursing research across the globe. Below, two Connell School alumni and a current student talk about experiences that have turned them into global citizens.
“I wasn’t just educated to be a nurse for problems right here in Boston. I was pushed to be a global leader in caring for the marginalized." —John Welch, M.S. ’12
On his flight to Boston to begin his nurse anesthesia master’s program in January 2010, John Welch, M.S. ’12, read Mountains Beyond Mountains, the influential biography of Partners in Health (PIH) founder Paul Farmer. A week later, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. It killed more than 100,000, crippling the nation and overwhelming its hospitals. Welch called PIH to ask how he could help. The answer: first finish your 70-credit degree program (with a structured practicum and residency). It teaches the planning, evaluating, safety, and surgical considerations involved in anesthesia care.
The Ohio native, who has since led health care teams in Haiti, then Liberia, and then Sierra Leone, was prepared to take on those missions at the Connell School. “I wasn’t just educated to be a nurse for problems right here in Boston,” he says. “I was pushed to be a global leader in caring for the marginalized.”
After graduating, Welch found a job through the Anesthesia Foundation (AF) as a nurse anesthetist at Boston Children’s Hospital. In the fall of 2013, PIH opened a 300-bed teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti, and asked AF for anesthesia accompaniment. Welch volunteered immediately. When he arrived, he barely spoke Creole. Soon he was coordinating the daily operating room schedule, building a recovery room program, and delivering twice weekly lectures on nurse anesthesia to local hospital staff, in Creole. For the next year and a half, through a special arrangement with AF, Welch spent six weeks in Haiti, then two weeks as a nurse anesthetist at Boston Children’s, where more than half of his patients were cardiac anesthesia cases.
Then the Ebola epidemic erupted in West Africa. In September 2014, Welch was back in New England for two weeks, driving to a concert in Vermont on a day off, when PIH’s chief nursing officer, Sheila Davis, called. What started as a brief discussion of PIH’s Ebola strategy quickly led to a question: could Welch move to Africa?
Social justice, says Welch, is about having the mindset that “if you can do something to help someone, you absolutely should.” A week later, he was at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta for Ebola training. Three weeks after that, he boarded a series of planes to Monrovia, Liberia, where he served as the chief clinical officer for PIH’s Ebola response.
Much of his work was devoted to building Ebola treatment units to prepare for and respond to flare-ups of the disease in rural areas. But he saw abandoned hospitals throughout the country. “There was no essential health care happening,” he says. Welch helped PIH reinstate screening and diagnosis for several infectious diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. He also helped develop maternal child health programs and secured a lab on-site at a maternity hospital that reduced pregnant mothers’ waiting times for results of Ebola testing from days to minutes.
“At the end of my career, I’d like to be able to say my patient population was everyone who was sick and marginalized. That feels like the mission of the Connell School too.” —John Welch
In December 2014, Davis called Welch once again. “Can you fly to Sierra Leone tomorrow?” she asked. Ebola rates had skyrocketed in Sierra Leone, killing hundreds of citizens as well as many health care workers. He flew on a United Nations plane to Port Loko, where he witnessed what was “well and truly an absolute nightmare.” He worked out of a concrete vocational school that had been repurposed into a 110-bed treatment unit that was so overwhelmed that staff burned 100 Ebola hazmat suits an hour. (Each suit could only be worn once, and each health care provider was allowed inside the contaminated unit for no longer than an hour at a time.) Clothing, blankets, cellphones, and any other materials that entered the hospital were incinerated at all hours of the day.
Welch worked 20-hour days, six to seven days a week, for five months in Port Loko. He helped develop a center for pregnant women with Ebola, a survivor clinic, and helped PIH partner with 20 Ebola treatment facilities throughout the country, he recalls. Welch and his team saw nearly 2,000 patients, about 400 of whom were Ebola positive, and screened more than 2,700 Ebola survivors.
After fulfilling a seven-month commitment with PIH in Africa in April 2015, Welch returned to Boston Children’s Hospital, where he remains a senior nurse anesthetist. He’s also an associate in anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. But he hopes his international work is far from over. “At the end of my career,” says Welch, “I’d like to be able to say my patient population was everyone who was sick and marginalized. That feels like the mission of the Connell School too.”
South Korea native Lanah Han ’18 was on a clinical rotation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when she wondered, What can America learn from my home country’s health care system, and vice versa? Her question evolved into a research proposal, which then became an investigation into hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in Seoul, paid for with an Advanced Study Grant.
“I hope to contribute to improving health care not only in the US but around the world.” —Lanah Han ’18
Each year, Boston College awards some 40 of these grants to rising juniors and seniors across all four schools. The funds—between $500 and $2,500, provided by the University Fellowships Committee—support local and international projects and are designed “to encourage undergraduates to acquire skills that will make more sophisticated research and study possible.” (Other recent ASG recipients at the Connell School include Madeline Mouton-Johnston ’18, who studied “Cultural Competency in Argentine Healthcare,” and Dana Cavanaugh ’18, who examined the “Social Determinants of Exclusive Breastfeeding in Rural Ghana.”)
Han received more than $2,000 to travel to Seoul, where she stayed with extended family. She explored the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS), the universal health care provider to all South Koreans. Connell School Assistant Professor and native Korean Kyung Hee Lee connected Han with former health service nurses to interview. She also visited NHIS’s headquarters and library, and went for a checkup at a Korean clinic. She learned that the majority of Koreans frequently visit local clinics, where wait times are negligible and visits cost roughly the equivalent of $2.50.
“South Korea is obviously much smaller, but I was amazed by how cheap and accessible it is to get treated,” Han says. But the checkups themselves are too brief—five to 10 minutes on average—and often done “without sincerity,” she said. (Physicians, she explained, ask few questions, and are quick to prescribe.) Han’s findings were among those featured at the Connell School’s annual research symposium in April. Her experience, she says, solidified her interest in a career in global health policy. “I hope to contribute to improving health care not only in the US but around the world.”
As an undergraduate, Jamie Krzmarzick ’09, M.S. ’15, filled much of her free time helping with social justice programs at Boston College: in Campus Ministry, in Appalachia Volunteers, and in the PULSE Program for Service Learning. But it was during a weeklong Connell School service trip to one of Nicaragua’s poorest communities in her senior year that she witnessed health care inequities firsthand—and decided she wanted to contribute a year of service after graduating. Though she felt pressure to gain hospital experience in the States, Krzmarzick says her faculty mentors—including Clinical Instructor Rosemary Byrne and Clinical Assistant Professor Donna Cullinan—“encouraged me to follow my vocation.”
“You only have to answer to yourself at the end of the day...There’s a path for every nurse and it doesn’t have to look identical to your nursing peer.” —Jamie Krzmarzick ’09, M.S. ’15
Two months after graduating, she arrived in impoverished Durán, Ecuador, as a member of the Catholic volunteer program Rostro de Cristo (Face of Christ). Every morning she worked at a community clinic alongside an OB-GYN doctor. Following Rostro’s mission to not only aid but foster relationships with the Ecuadorian people, she “accompanied” her female patients—counseling them, listening to them, and educating them in STDs, pregnancy prevention, and healthy prenatal care. She often worked in a soup kitchen during her lunch break, and in the afternoons co-led an after-school program for up to 100 undereducated children at a time. A year later, Krzmarzick was reluctant to leave. “I felt guilty, like I was abandoning these people I had come to love. And how could I assimilate this experience back in the States?”
The answer came in a Brigham and Women’s Hospital job posting seeking a Spanish-speaking nurse at a gynecology clinic. Krzmarzick ended up working with a patient population very similar to the one she had in Ecuador—single women, often poverty-stricken, often victims of violence. Her Rostro experience, she said, brought out the imagination and compassion she developed at the Connell School. She worked nights for nearly five years as she earned her master’s in family nursing, and then became a nurse practitioner in primary care at Massachusetts General Hospital. “You can’t just say, ‘to treat your diabetes, you have to do A, B, and C,’” she says. “You have to be more creative and imaginative. You have to meet the person where they are. You have to ask, ‘What do you want to do to treat this?’”
Krzmarzick has been a clinical instructor at the Connell School since 2015. Her career came full circle last fall, when she prepared five undergraduates for a three-week nursing immersion program in Chile. (She would have joined the trip had she not given birth to her first child in October, she said.) Krzmarzick tells current students who feel called to social justice but also feel pressured to have stability and security, “You only have to answer to yourself at the end of the day. . . .There’s a path for every nurse and it doesn’t have to look identical to your nursing peer.”