Published: Aug. 15, 2017

The making of a humanitarian nurse

Contact(s): Jill Vondrasek Division of Public Health office: 810-600-9185

It was 7 a.m. and more than 100 people were lined up waiting for medical care. Two young men came running alongside a motorcycle, balancing an elderly woman lying on a makeshift stretcher made of corrugated steel. A young woman was in labor and about to deliver a baby. Others were wounded, or traumatized and in need of emotional help.

The location was the port town of Léogâne, five days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had hit Haiti in January 2010. The death toll was 230,000, and more than 300,000 people were injured. Many humanitarian organizations had responded to appeals for help, including several members of a church in Franklin, Tennessee. Among them was Spartan nurse, Yvonne Visbeen.

She had signed up through her church, expecting to help with the relief effort by gathering supplies and equipment needed to send to Haiti. Instead, she was contacted by Hope Force International and asked to go to Léogâne — the earthquake epicenter — to work in a field hospital. She had no time to weigh the pros and cons. She made a split-second decision and, within four days, she was on a plane to Haiti.

“It was the most difficult, but the most rewarding, experience of my life,” Visbeen says.

For seven days, Visbeen and her team cared for the physical needs — as well as the emotional and spiritual needs — of an endless line of patients, from sunup to sundown. The physical demands and the emotional stamina required of the team were high. They saw 400 to 500 patients every day.

In a nursing career, one often has to put aside personal needs and emotions to address the critical needs of others. “In Léogâne, the needs of the people were greater. Without really consciously deciding it, that is what I did. I was never so proud of our profession and thankful for the opportunity to serve others.”

She says it wasn’t until she was on the plane to return home that it all hit her. “As we taxied down the runway, I looked out the window at Haiti, and I just began to weep,” Visbeen says.

Feeling drawn to return, she went back to Haiti nine months later to work in a clinic that had been set up in the tent cities of Port-au-Prince. This nurse-turned-humanitarian has gone back several times since to help build housing and provide basic nutritional support and medical care for the people in the village of Sous Savane. 

Her takeaway from this experience: When an opportunity presents itself to you — as a nurse — be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and seize it; this could lead to a life-changing experience. 

“For me, that split-second decision changed the rest of my life. I hope I never lose the compassion, and never miss an opportunity to help relieve the suffering of others around the world.”