News & Events

New and veteran nurses team up to help Haitians

January 24, 2011

Cassie Gryczewski is a first-year nurse who works on A-2. Beth Barnes has been a nurse for more than 30 years, the last eight in the Backus Emergency Department. Their lives intersected recently in Haiti, where they worked together on third shift in a cholera camp.

The last night they were there, a young man arrived with an altered mental status. He had had diarrhea for two days prior and was extremely dehydrated.

Ms. Gryczewski made the decision to call in her more experienced colleague, Ms. Barnes, and paramedics to care for the man. Although it was a tough decision, Ms. Gryczewski left the patient in their hands and went to care for the many other cholera victims who were fighting for their lives.

The man died within 45 minutes, the only death that she witnessed during her shifts. This moment, which she will remember forever, also illustrates her transformation during the Jan. 9-14 mission — from a timid rookie to a confident caregiver.

“It was amazing,” Ms. Barnes said. “The first night Cassie was there I think she was afraid and unsure. By the last night we were doing rounds and assessments and she noticed something I missed – how sick this patient really was. She was sure of herself, she was confident, it was so gratifying to see her grow and mature.”

Ms. Gryczewski, 38, one of several Backus clinicians to take part in this mission on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, readily admits she was overwhelmed when she first arrived.

“Everything was so different – from the supplies to the language to the diseases we were dealing with,” she said.

She said the supplies were rudimentary at best, nothing like what many caregivers take for granted in hospitals back in the U.S.

“In the Backus Nurse Residency Program, we were taught by the book, and to follow hospital policies,” Ms. Gryczewski said. “In Haiti, most of the supplies were donated –nothing like you would see at the hospital — and there were no policies. I had to adapt, to learn to trust my judgment and intuition. I learned this from Beth – her skills were amazing.”

Ms. Barnes, 61, said her most lasting memory will be the gentleness and kindness that Haitians showed towards one another. One of the four buildings they worked in was filled with disabled children and young adults, and she will never forget the image of one young man who was barely three feet tall, with cerebral palsy, and his dedicated, compassionate Haitian caregiver.

“I never witnessed anything but the utmost kindness,” she said. “Some of the horror stays with you, but that will too.”

Both women said upon their return, they realized a big difference in patients’ attitudes toward healthcare workers. In the U.S. they expect to receive the highest level of care, whereas in Haiti there is no sense of entitlement and they show unlimited gratitude for any help they get.

Both women also feel strongly that they will go back if the opportunity presents itself.

“You really feel like you are making a difference,” Ms. Barnes said.