By Debra Wood, RN, NurseZone contributor
Ensuring that more than 7,000 volunteers in 70 countries
return home healthy, Peace Corps nurses bolster the agency’s goal of achieving
world harmony and mutual understanding. The work performed by the nurses helps
Americans assist a global populace learn how to break the cycle of poverty.
"I know I’m making a difference," said Paula
Dolan, RN, an international health coordinator. "We’re committed to the
philosophy and goals of Peace Corps. It’s probably the best diplomacy we have
During the early 1980s, before graduating from nursing school,
Dolan spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, living in a remote Jamaican
village with no running water or electricity. Health crises were a component of
everyday life, with the nearest clinic a three hour walk away. One of the things
she learned was that people didn’t care what she knew until they knew she
cared. She explained, "It means a lot to people just to know Americans are
willing to spend a day in their shoes."
But before Americans can show their commitment, a Peace Corps
nurse screens them. Nurses review health-history forms and, if indicated,
prepare additional questions for the volunteer’s physician. They try to
accommodate volunteers with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes
mellitus, asthma or heart disease.
"We work at screening people in—not out—of Peace
Corps," said Mary Grace Brennan, RN, clinical manager for screening.
"We want to be sure we will not put them in additional risk with their
medical condition and that they will be able to complete their tour of
Brennan began working for the Peace Corps two years ago, after
a career in college health nursing. She said that challenging cases make her job
Overseas, about 141 Peace Corps medical officers (PCMOs)
assume responsibility for volunteers’ health needs. They try to prevent
communicable diseases, as well as handle emergencies. About half of the medical
officers are nurses. Rebecca Ehrich, MN, RN, CS, FNP, served as a PCMO in four
different countries. While in Mongolia from 1995-1998, she introduced local
practitioners to modern nursing theory and scientific methods. Although now
working in private practice in Missouri, Ehrich recalls warmly her Peace Corps
"There’s no other job like it," she said. "I
not only felt gratified myself, but by keeping volunteers healthy and reasonably
happy, they were able to function efficiently doing wonderful things."
Peace Corps Medical Officers develop a network of health
providers to facilitate care in the assigned country. If a volunteer requires
medical evacuation, the PCMO calls one of eight international health
coordinators, like Dolan, who collaborate and make arrangements for stateside
care. A serious accident may call for stabilization at a foreign facility before
transferring to a Washington, D.C., hospital. Other times, an MRI, unavailable
in the host country, may be all that’s needed.
"We want to treat them, hopefully get them better and
send them back to the country, so they can keep doing their work," said
Catherine Bruder, RN, another coordinator. Before becoming a nurse, Bruder
signed on as a Peace Corps agricultural extension agent in Mauritania, Africa.
Her co-worker Tea Hess, RN, BSN, MPH, also understands the
volunteer experience. The former pediatric oncology nurse joined as a community
health nurse in Guatemala, where she taught basic principles of health,
nutrition and sanitation, and walked from village to village vaccinating
"I’d do it again in a heartbeat," she said.
Last year, during a leave of absence, she participated in an
international polio eradication project in Nepal, going house to house
immunizing children, marking the houses and monitoring the effort to make sure
no youngsters were missed.
While not all Peace Corps nurses have been volunteers, most
have international experience. In addition, many make field support visits to
learn how volunteers in their region live and work.
Every day about 60 or 70 volunteers receive care in Washington
for a variety of medical and mental health conditions. Once stable, if the
supervisor overseas agrees, volunteers may return with temporary restrictions.
When medical or mental health conditions preclude going back, service
Anne Casey Mills, RN, MSN, manager post services, processes
and manages health benefits for former volunteers. She arranges evaluations to
determine if lingering medical problems are Corps related and, if so, prepares
worker’s compensation claims.
"We have one central goal—taking care of them and
giving them the benefits they deserve," said the former occupational health
nurse. "Because of that, everything else follows. It allows you to practice
in a way that’s exceptional."
President George Bush hopes to double the number of volunteers
during the next five years. By then, a new set of nurses will be screening and
caring for volunteers, because Corps employees can stay only five years, a rule
designed to encourage fresh thinking. While most regret the forced separation,
all feel privileged to have helped bring citizens of the world a bit closer.
"I’m supportive of the volunteers and Peace Corps
effort, so I’m very happy to work at headquarters," Bruder concluded.
"We can get Americans out living with different peoples all over the
March 22, 2002. © 2002. NurseZone.com. All Rights