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Alumna answers call to address maternal & infant mortality in Haiti
Her dream of becoming a nurse also included the desire to work in third world countries, a passion that started after Borgeson Gray read an article in the National Geographic about an African medical team vaccinating tribal communities. “There was a picture of a nurse standing in the middle of this sea of beautiful African faces and I thought – ‘that’s what I want to do someday!’” Busy with work, family and life’s other responsibilities, her dream was postponed until the year before her 60th birthday. “I was only working part-time then and felt I had more time and flexibility to dedicate to medical missions. I just didn’t know where to start.”
With so many countries and organizations from which to choose, Borgeson Gray began researching medical missions’ trips online. Following the heartbreaking news of the February 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the country and its people weighed heavily on her heart. She knew Haiti was where she had been called to go. Within two weeks, she found herself in Port-au-Prince, right in the middle of the chaos. “It was a major health and medical crisis for the country and that was a turning point for me. It really changed my life. I became hooked on medical missions’ work and have been back to Haiti eleven times since.”
During her first few medical missions’ trips, Borgeson Gray, along with a medical team, would strap their supplies to motorcycles and ride up into the Haitian mountain villages. “The people had no access to healthcare there, so we set up bush clinics for them.” While she remembers it being a rewarding and very educational experience, Borgeson Gray did not feel like she was making any kind of permanent, positive impact on the country’s population.” As an emeritus Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and certified Family Health Nurse Practitioner, Borgeson Gray firmly believed women should be empowered to control their own bodies and their own fertility, and she wanted to help the Haitian women make their own informed health decisions. The group Borgeson Gray had been volunteering with, however, was not interested in branching out to include specialty services for women’s health or family planning. Determined to make an impact with these women, she searched for new volunteer opportunities there.
A short time later, a friend introduced Borgeson Gray to Soaring Unlimited Haiti, a nonprofit organization that provides Haitians with healthcare and vaccinations, supplies food to undernourished children along nutrition education, and provides English classes and a leadership training program. The nonprofit financially supports about 100 children so they can attend school and have participated in the building of a school and orphanage. In addition, Soaring Unlimited Haiti has partnered with other organizations to build wells in the region for clean water and provide communities with education in hygiene and sanitation. Soaring Unlimited Haiti also has an established primary care clinic, which employs 15 Haitians as doctors, nurse midwives, laboratory and pharmacy technicians. “The clinic sees up to 20 patients per day,” said Borgeson Gray. “People in the rural areas have very little access to healthcare or have to travel a long way to be seen. Some may have to travel as far as eight miles down the mountain to receive care.”
Soaring Unlimited Haiti had purchased land adjacent to the clinic a few months prior to Borgeson Gray joining the organization. After presenting her ideas of developing a women’s health and birthing center, the director of the nonprofit was excited by her ideas. “Haiti has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the western hemisphere because there is so little access to prenatal care,” said Borgeson Gray. “Midwives are delivering babies at home and so many mothers and babies are dying. If a Haitian woman dies in childbirth, her other children are ten times more likely to die before the age of five.”
Borgeson Gray has been involved with Soaring Unlimited Haiti for nearly four years now and serves as a volunteer on their Board of Directors as the coordinator of the women’s health program. Typically, she travels to Haiti twice a year, staying up to two weeks at a time; always paying her own expenses. Since joining Soaring Unlimited Haiti, Borgeson Gray’s role has transitioned from clinical work to more community and program planning and development, fundraising and ensuring the nonprofit is sustainable over time. “All of the skills I have accumulated over my long nursing career are still serving me today, especially as I learn about the culture and try to communicate with people who speak a different language.”
While Soaring Unlimited Haiti is still in the process of raising funds to build the new women’s health and birthing center, Borgeson Gray says the nonprofit has already begun making strides to address the mortality crisis, working with the community to lay the groundwork so the women will understand and want to use the services as they become available. To date, the nonprofit has hired a nurse midwife, started a prenatal program out of the primary care clinic, and partnered with a Haitian organization to distribute birth control pills. “We held a 22-week, government sanctioned training program with the nurse midwives who deliver babies in the homes. They graduated in October 2017 and each received birthing kits. This training taught them how to identify when a mother needs to go to the hospital and how to resuscitate babies who are in trouble.”
Medical missions’ work has been a mind-expanding experience for Borgeson Gray, who says it is exciting to see how other people live. “These trips are an amazing adventure. You are exposed to different cultures, healthcare, and way of life.” She cautions, however, that these trips are not for the faint of heart. “It can be overwhelming at times because there is so much that needs to be done. It takes mental preparation to prepare for the culture shock and adjustments of being in a third world country.” As painful as parts of it can be, though, Borgeson Gray reveals the reward is unbelievable. “Gratification comes when you realize that you are making a difference, not just for one individual, but for a whole community.”
Reflecting back on her career and past missions’ trips, Borgeson Gray feels she has many insights into humanity that she never would have had without these experiences. “There is a whole world of healthcare out there. Nursing can expand into so many different areas of people’s lives. If you can affect one life, at one particular moment, and make a connection to that individual, that’s what love and nursing are all about – it is meaningful and you have made a difference.”