I recently had the opportunity to 'meet' one of the many great nurses at Swedish, Sue Averill. I say 'meet' because while I'm currently blogging from Seattle, she's volunteering her time in Guatemala and serving as a medical coordinator for a Doctors Without Borders project. Sue and another great nurse, Staci Kelley, are both ER nurses at Swedish Cherry Hill, Ballard, and Mill Creek. They started a non-profit organization three years ago to help nurses become involved in volunteer work at home and abroad. They offer a free directory of organizations using nurse volunteers that can be sorted to match nursing interests and skills to the needs. They also offer scholarships to help offset trip costs for nurses volunteering on international missions. I had the opportunity to chat online with Sue while she was in Guatemala to learn more about "One Nurse At A Time" and her passion for volunteer nursing:
You work as a nurse in Seattle, caring for patients in Swedish's emergency departments. What made you think about volunteering your extra time as a nurse?
Sue: In 1999 a friend of mine was volunteering for Healing the Children and needed a Spanish speaking nurse to work recovery on a facial surgery team in Guatemala. I went and in one week, was hooked! I loved the work, the people, the process, the culture, the kids. I learned so much and gained far more than I gave. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and by far, the most rewarding.
Sue Averill in Manila.
What sparked your interest in volunteering abroad? How did you find out about opportunities for nurses?
Sue: Once I returned home from that first trip to Guatemala, I began to search for other opportunities to volunteer. I did three more trips with Healing the Children and through networking, found Interplast (now Resurge), Operation Smile, Health Volunteers Overseas and others. At the time there was very little up to date information on line about volunteer organizations, and no sites specifically for nurses. It was time consuming and frustrating trying to make contact and offer my skills. I thought, “There has to be a better way.”
How did you get the idea for One Nurse at a Time? How do nurses get involved with you or other volunteer nursing organizations?
Sue: Over the years, I heard hundreds of times from nurses, “I want to do what you’re doing. How do I go about it? What’s involved?” Friends and friends of friends referred nurses and their questions. One of those friends of friends and I met for coffee and started to brainstorm about volunteer nursing, how to help nurses become involved, how to encourage hospitals to support nurses, how to give nurses the information they need to be proficient when they arrive at their missions, how to educate the public about the value of nurse volunteers and the vastly different scope of practice.
With these ideas in mind, and Staci on board, we began to define our goal of being the “go to” organization for nurses wishing to volunteer at home and abroad. We created a directory of hundreds of organizations using nurse volunteers, started fundraising, writing and speaking about volunteer work and social networking. Now we are in the process of creating a more interactive website, posting educational modules about situations and diseases we don’t know in the US (malnutrition, measles, malaria, cholera, etc.) – dealing with all of these things from a nurse’s perspective. And we encourage nurses to write/email their questions and suggestions. We want to continue that spirit of personal connection and encouragement.
What is it like to volunteer your nursing skills outside of the U.S.? How is it different?
Sue: That would be a book in and of itself! In the developing world, Western educated nurses are akin to doctors – we are expected to work independently, diagnose, treat, serve as hospital administrators, logisticians, human resource officers, trainers – you name it. Often times, resources are limited – not only in terms of medications and supplies, but in terms of well trained human resources. On my first mission with Doctors Without Borders in Darfur in 2004, we had no trained nurses – the staff didn’t know how to count a pulse, didn’t have watches and had no idea what vital signs indicated. By the end of 6 months, they were not only providing excellent care to our patients, but doing complex treatments like blood transfusions without a blood bank!
I’ve been fortunate to make lifelong friends with national staff wherever I’ve worked. I’ve learned about different cultures and societies, different viewpoints about world affairs and raising families, different food and diseases and lifestyles. We bring our knowledge to share and in return, we learn.
What do you wish you knew when you first started?
Sue: I arrogantly thought that as a 25 year ER nurse, I could handle anything. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had no idea I was looking at a child with malnutrition. I couldn’t recognize a case of measles. I had no idea how to treat malaria. I still wonder today, if I’d known then what I know now, could I have saved lives? With the new education modules for One Nurse At A Time, we hope to share some of that basic information so nurses won’t have to say later, “I wish I’d known ….”
If there's one thing you want the Seattle community to know about your experiences, what would it be?
Sue: As an individual and as a profession, nurses CAN change the world. We do it one patient at a time. We offer our skills, our knowledge, our caring, our hearts. We welcome the opportunity to share our message with groups or write stories and articles. And of course, we are thankful for donations to help pay trip costs and make those changes, One Nurse At A Time.
Sue Averill has been an ER nurse for 30+ years and still loves it! She took a decade long detour into the business world, getting her MBA and helping to set international standards for medical care in the cruise industry. Since 1999 she has been fortunate to be invited on two dozen missions around the world. In addition to working at Swedish and volunteering, Sue is proud to be President and co-counder of One Nurse At A Time.