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Boston Globe: Summer school for healers

Summer school for healers

Nursing teachers from Haiti study US methods at Regis

The National School of Nursing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, collapsed in the 2010 earthquake.

By Neena Satija

Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

Germaine Pierre Laine now knows that when a patient is barrel-chested, that might indicate a lung disease. She has learned how to percuss a patient’s back and abdomen, using short, sharp blows and listening to the sound they produce to test for illnesses.

But one of the most powerful lessons the 41-year-old Haitian nurse has learned during a six-week course at Regis College is much simpler: that a nurse can sit on a hospital bed with a patient.

In Haiti, most nurses consider this practice inappropriate, she said. But after seeing nurses sit on patients’ beds here, Laine has decided she will try it when she returns to the National School of Nursing in Cap-Haïtien next month.

“You’re bringing barriers down between you and the patient,’’ she explained in Creole.

Laine is one of 12 nursing teachers from Haiti spending part of the summer at Regis for a crash course in American nursing, gaining expertise they will then pass on to a new generation of nurses back home.

Nurses and administrators from Regis College and Boston-based Partners in Health, which are collaborating on the training project, conceived it years ago. But the program gained urgency after an earthquake last year destroyed the national nursing school in Port-au-Prince, killing nearly 100 students and faculty.

With help from international donors, the school – which continues to operate in tents on piles of rubble – will be rebuilt. Training new nurses will be more difficult.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti had too few nurses and nursing teachers. Mirmonde Amazan, a pediatric nurse and instructor at the National School of Nursing in Les Cayes, on the southwestern tip of Haiti, divides her time between a teaching schedule and a clinical supervision schedule. That means she often has to leave students at the hospital on their own while she teaches a class.

The Regis program aims to change that. The course the nurses are taking this summer, in combination with online and other classes they will have once they return to Haiti, will allow them to earn master’s degrees from the University of Haiti and become nurse practitioners.

Such a level of education for nurses is “unheard of in Haiti,’’ said Regis president Toni Hays, who cofounded the program when she was dean of the school’s nursing program in 2007. Most nurses in Haiti today cannot earn degrees through a university, so nursing instructors are not as respected as other faculty, she said. “But this is the beginning of a movement.’’

Two summers from now, once the 12 women have earned their degrees, they will return to Regis to teach the next cohort of students.

“I’ve learned so many things,’’ the 43-year-old Amazan said in French. “How hospitals work. How training works. How supervision works.’’ The level of supervision that nursing students have in the United States has convinced her that she must spend more time with students in a clinical setting, she said.

The nurses stay in dormitories on the fourth floor of College Hall, the main building on the school’s Weston campus. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the television was on in the dormitory lounge, but nobody was watching. Instead, Amazan and two other women sat with their heads bent over notebooks as they worked on an assignment.

Later that day, everyone filed into nearby Domitilla Hall for their health assessment lab. There, assistant professor of nursing Kellie LaPierre showed them how to give patients a physical exam.

“Inspection. Auscultation. Palpation. Percussion,’’ they recited after her, adding Creole inflections, as they examined each other’s abdominal regions.

Doctors are usually the ones to give such exams in Haiti, but in many places, the only medical professionals around are nurses – and the exams are often the only tools available in a country where hospitals often run short of the most basic medical supplies, such as gauze or intravenous fluids.

“They don’t have an X-ray. They don’t have an MRI,’’ said Kellie LaPierre, an assistant professor of nursing at Regis. But if nurses can do a thorough physical exam, “they can diagnose problems like TB. Like pneumonia. . . . It’s teaching them how to think.’’

As LaPierre instructed the students, Thamy Crevecoeur, a nurse at Boston Medical Center whose father was a physician in Haiti for years, stood beside her and translated into Creole.

In a state with strong ties to Haiti – Massachusetts has the third-highest population of Haitians in this country, and hundreds of medical staff and volunteers from here participated in relief efforts after the earthquake – the Regis program has had no lack of volunteers.

Once Amazan returns to Haiti, she said, she will be able to motivate aspiring nurses in a way she previously could not.

“It’s very difficult to ask somebody to work when there’s nothing to work with,’’ she said. But with what she and her colleagues have learned, they can go home and begin to rebuild.

Neena Satija can be reached at

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company