Be the change you want to see in the world. ~ Ghandi

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Perfect Moments Don't Come in Perfect Packages"

There are so many words swirling around in my head when I try to describe my experience as a mission nurse. Certainly the words sweltering, sticky, dirty, sweaty and exhausting cover the physical part, but the physical is the most superficial aspect of the experience of mission nursing. Mind and spirit are the deeper aspects, and this is where I find the most authentic words to describe the experience.

How do I describe the sheer joy I felt holding the hand of a child on a rickety ferry blasting Bollywood music on our way to provide typhoid and malaria testing on a remote island? Or the overwhelming welcome we received in each of the villages we visited with all the villagers gathered to sing for us? Perfect moments don’t come in perfect packages and they aren’t always received with perfect grace. I found myself on the verge of tears at the oddest moments most of the week. The interaction with the villagers we met brought me back to that primal place I first visited when I decided to become a nurse 21 years ago. For me, the decision to become a nurse was divinely inspired, a response to a harrowing 2 years of my little daughter’s treatment for leukemia. Thus, nursing has always been my ministry. It’s when I’m able to be most in the moment and most connected to my reason for existing on this planet.

Mission nursing is not easy! The heat in India in May is annihilating. Simple things like putting on gloves become a challenge when your hands are dripping sweat. (Thankfully a team member brought a little container of baby powder.) There are no toilets in the jungle, a fact which was painfully brought home to me the day I absolutely had to go and was directed to a corner where 2 roosters were tied up. I gave up my vegetarian ways for the rest of the trip and ate all the chicken that was served to me.

You become concretely aware of what you don’t have: plastic bags for medical waste, sharps containers (we had 2, which filled up the first day and we ended up using empty water bottles), dressing supplies. We had to tote all of our medical waste back with us in our backpacks.

The cultural differences are both charming and amusing. I cringe when I say amusing, because I know I was probably the source of a lot of Indian laughter as I bumbled along. I imagine the look on my face was pretty funny the first time I was presented with a huge plate of hot rice and curry and realized that I was expected to eat it with my hands. Or when the Indian ladies poured buckets of water over my feet after the encounter with the roosters in the open air loo. And Indians have this head wagging thing that they do, which means “yes”, “I approve”, “hello” or all of the above.

The deepest feelings I have about my mission experience actually involve the Indian head wag. As the villages lined up for testing, I made a point of holding each hand, looking into their eyes and smiling. When I got the smile and head wag in return I found my heart filling up and realized that I was once again experiencing the essence of why I became a nurse. It’s so easy to lose this connection with our patients in our rushed and impersonal culture. How wonderful to find it again in a place where communication transcends the boundaries of language and culture to come straight from the heart.

-Liza Leukhardt, RN
Nurses for the Nations, Andra Pradesh, India, May 14-24, 2012

Liza Leukhardt decided to become a nurse 20 years ago after caring for her three year old daughter during two years of chemotherapy for childhood leukemia. Having already worked as a newspaper reporter, elementary school teacher and theater costumer, Liza views nursing more as a ministry than a career. For the past twenty years she has been a hospice nurse. Her ability to work with the dying is a gift she discovered during her daughter’s illness. Today her daughter is a robust and healthy 29 year old woman with an exceptional empathy for others in need. Liza currently works as a weekend Baylor nurse for a local home care agency while pursuing a master’s in nursing at the University of Hartford. She is a contributing writer to and her story may be found in the anthology “Nurses on the Run” edited by Karen Buley.