Volunteer Team to Honduras includes First-Ever Oncology Nursing Component
Lisa Kennedy Sheldon, PhD APRN-BC AOCNPÒ, and Julie Carlson, MS APN AOCNSÒ
We have just returned from a very rewarding experience working with nurses who provide cancer care in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. In August 2011, we spent one week as part of a volunteer team coordinated by Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO), which included two gynecologic oncologists, Dr. Clifford Wheeless and Dr. Emily Berry, as well as Krista Carlson (Julie’s bilingual daughter), who provided interpretation assistance. Our local hosts in Honduras were Dr. Jose Angel Sanchez, a medical oncologist at Hospital Escuela and San Felipe, and senior surgical oncology resident, Dr. Hoover Henriquez Cooper. With support from ASCO’s International Cancer Corps (ICC), this visit marks the first time oncology nurses have volunteered in Honduras.
We were able to visit with patients and nurses in the two main public hospitals in Tegucigalpa – San Felipe and Hospital Escuela. For the first three days of our trip, we visited outpatient chemotherapy clinics, adult inpatient wards and the pediatric oncology unit. It was fascinating to learn about the nursing culture, practices, and especially to talk with many patients and hear their stories. There are many differences in what is available to patients in the hospitals in Honduras, and we were amazed by the resilience and resourcefulness of patients and their families.
Working with local doctors, medical students, residents, and the Honduran Undersecretary for Health, we provided a two-day conference for Honduran nurses working in cancer care; the first conference for oncology nurses ever organized in Honduras. Approximately 100 nurses attended the conference which was twice the number expected, a strong indication of the interest and need for more education and collaboration. We delivered 10 bilingual lectures during the conference using medical students as translators. Initially, it was challenging to lecture in English, wait for the immediate translation, and have our slides on the big screen in Spanish. But we soon became accustomed to the pace, and by the second day, it all flowed very smoothly. At the conference, we collected information about the nurses who participated, including demographic information, education, years in oncology, work settings, and educational needs for use in future program development.
The conference concluded with a round table of healthcare providers to discuss the needs of patients with cancer and health care providers in Honduras. Suggestions included a cancer foundation to provide supplemental funding to improve cancer care initiatives, a professional organization for Honduran oncology nurses, graduate programs in oncology nursing, collaboration with other international organizations such as the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) and the International Society for Cancer Care Nurses (ISCCN), and future conferences organized with HVO and ASCO volunteers as well as local experts in cancer care.
The ICC program was started by ASCO in partnership with HVO, an international education organization that is celebrating its 25th anniversary of placing medical volunteers around the world. Since 2010, the ICC has worked with health care providers, academic institutions, and medical facilities to enhance oncology training and improve cancer care in low-resource countries. Until now, volunteers to Honduras have all been oncologists. However, we hope that by sharing our experience, other oncology nurses will consider volunteering to share their own skills and expertise with nurses in Honduras who clearly expressed to us an interest and a need for further training.
This was an amazing opportunity to learn about another healthcare system, develop relationships with other healthcare providers in another country, and share knowledge about improvements to cancer care. It was beneficial on both the professional and personal levels, leaving us with a strong desire to return and continue our collaboration with our new colleagues in Honduras. Our hosts in Honduras, Dr. Sanchez and Dr. Cooper, were wonderful and made us feel welcome in their country, providing introductions and facilitating relationships with nurses and other cancer care providers. It was remarkable to watch nurses working in professional roles with limited resources.
In addition to Honduras, oncology volunteer sites are now open in Ethiopia and Vietnam. Those interested in volunteering can visit www.asco.org/cancercorps or www.hvousa.org for more information.
Words of Advice from Julie Carlson
If someone asked me two years ago if I could ever see myself travelling to another country to work with oncology nurses, I’m pretty sure I would have said “no – not me”! But when I found out about this opportunity to travel to Honduras and help train the oncology nurses, it sounded so exciting (i.e., experiencing a totally different culture with an opportunity to learn and also teach), but a bit scary! Now, I can honestly say this entire experience has broadened my horizons, provided personal and professional growth, and has given me more confidence/courage to continue my travelling adventures! My words of advice – don’t let your fears hold you back if you are thinking that this is something you would like to do. Take that small first step like I did, and you never know what you might end up doing, and you will love every minute of it!
Julie Carlson is an Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Illinois. Lisa Kennedy Sheldon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in nursing with a focus on oncology nursing and cancer care. She is an oncology nurse practitioner at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire, and an Associate Member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.