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BOSTON -- After years of learning clinical skills in Boston's fast-paced medical community, a group of students from Boston College School of Nursing put their knowledge into practice in an environment that was different than they had grown used to -- yet not that far away.
In lieu of her school's usual international trip, Donna Cullinan, a clinical assistant professor at Boston College School of Nursing, led 19 seniors and five nurse practitioner students on a weeklong service trip to Aroostook County in northern Maine from April 19-23, giving them a chance to serve local communities, learn interpersonal skills, and reflect on their future careers in healthcare.
Cullinan began organizing international service trips after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. Each January break, she would lead a group of faculty, alumni, undergraduate seniors doing their population health clinical, and nurse practitioner students in their final year before certification. They would travel to different locations in Haiti or Jamaica to set up wellness fairs, offering screenings, diagnoses, and treatment, as well as educational stations on different health conditions.
Zoe Pappas, a senior nursing student, said she learned about Cullinan's trips during her application process, and that it was "always a big goal of mine to be able to participate in one of those experiences." She said she found it "fascinating" to learn about the role nurses play in community health and global health.
"I just wanted to be able to experience health care in a different setting," she said.
Senior Margaret "Meg" Polk said she learned about the school's service opportunities as a freshman, and always wanted to go on Cullinan's trip for her population health clinical.
Pappas and Polk both applied for the trip to Haiti, which was then reworked for Jamaica. They even did research and small projects about Jamaican culture. But ultimately, travel restrictions made even that trip impossible, so Cullinan looked for an opportunity to serve a community within the U.S. She found one in Maine, close to the Canadian border, with the help of Catholic Charities and Maine Public Health Association.
During the week of April 19-23, Cullinan's group set up wellness fairs at Holy Rosary Parish in Caribou, St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Houlton, and St. David Parish in Madawaska. They also visited local hospitals, participated in blood drives and vaccination clinics, conducted home visits, and helped to distribute food for a local pantry.
"It was incredible. Different than I anticipated, but it was great nonetheless," Polk said.
Although they stayed at a hotel throughout the week, they also spent time with the members of the parishes, sometimes attending Mass with them. The Knights of Columbus, Daughters of Isabella, and Holy Rosary Parish each took one or two turns making dinner for the group.
They were surprised by the slower pace of the rural community, compared to what they had become used to in an urban environment.
"In Boston and in nursing, sometimes things feel really fast and really task-oriented," Polk said.
In contrast, in Maine, they were able to take their time interacting with the people they met. Polk said she learned about "the value of a good conversation" and how that can be "as helpful of a treatment as giving a medication."
Pappas said she had a conversation with an elderly woman during a fall risk assessment that reminded her why she went into nursing in the first place.
"Nursing, to me, isn't just about being able to perform this clinical skill or that one. It's about being able to truly connect with people and meet them where they are," she said.
She said the trip "reminded me that in nursing we're really caring for the whole person."
"In nursing, sometimes we tend to just focus just on a physical symptom or a physical condition or a diagnosis, but there's so much more to a person," she said, adding that "This trip allowed me to consider that there's so much more to a person. There's the emotional side and the spiritual side to a person that deserves to be considered and cared for as well."
They made about 75 home visits over the course of the week in Maine. Polk was struck by one visit she made to an older woman, who she described as "a beautiful soul."
The group from Boston College School of Nursing pictured during their service trip in Fort Kent, Maine, on the U.S.-Canada border.
Pilot photo/courtesy Zoe Pappas
BC nursing students learn about community, communication during Maine service trip
By Jacqueline Tetrault Pilot Staff
"To have the opportunity to speak to her and hear about her life and the things she had been through and what she had overcome, and feeling so welcomed into her home environment, that was a very special experience," Polk said.
On April 22, they helped with a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Pappas said it was "really exciting and such an honor to be able to participate in that service."
Polk said that by that point, almost at the end of the week, she "had learned about the value of taking time and appreciating where you are and what you're doing." So, she took a step back, and reflected that she was "legitimately a part of history right now," as she signed people's vaccine cards -- something they might keep for the rest of their lives -- and helped a community build immunity to the coronavirus.
"That was a very beautiful moment to be a part of," Polk said.
The students also met local medical professionals, including people from Maine Public Health Association and a recovery specialist who taught them about how to talk to people experiencing withdrawal.
At one point, the students visited a local hospital, which Pappas said was "vastly different" from many of the Boston hospitals, where they do clinical rotations or work as nursing assistants. It was smaller and had a strong sense of community and support. The students were surprised that the doctors approached them and took time to talk to them.
Pappas said they could tell that everyone in the hospital, from the patients to the medical staff, felt "very supported, and in community with one another."
"It made all of us think about the kinds of places that we want to work in after we graduate and leave BC," she said.
On April 23, the last day of the trip, they helped distribute food for a pantry in Madawaska, carrying boxes of food to people waiting in a line of cars.
"It was freezing and snowing and my hands were completely numb, but looking at people's faces, giving them boxes of food and cartons of milk, to see how something that was a fairly simple act and a fairly simple thing for me to be a part of really made a difference, just having that gratitude to be able to provide that for them was a great feeling," Polk said.
The trip served as an opportunity for the seniors to reflect on the past four years of nursing school, and to have social interactions and bonding experiences that have been lacking during the coronavirus pandemic.
Polk said the trip taught her the importance of "actively searching for opportunities to help people, and that you can do those kinds of things in your everyday communities."
Even though they did not go to the Caribbean as they planned, she said, "I learned from this trip to Maine an even more valuable lesson than practicing clinical skills, which is that you really can make a difference wherever you end up."