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Boston College professor reflects on years of service in Haiti

Posted by Sarah Thomas  April 27, 2011 09:16 AM

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An audio slideshow by Boston College nursing professor Donna Cullinan with photos from the trip she organized in 2010 to provide medical relief in Haiti.

Nine years ago, Boston College assistant professor Donna Cullinan went on her first trip offering medical relief in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. When she returned, she went to do some food shopping in Roche Bros. - and burst into tears in the middle of the store.

"Even now, I can remember that overwhelming sense of helplessness," Cullinan remembers. "Being surrounded by all that food, after having seen firsthand people who sometimes could not eat for days, was more than I could stand."

Today, Cullinan is a veteran of many more trips to Haiti, two this year alone. In March, Cullinan led the first all-nurse trip with students, alumni, and faculty from Boston College. The group spent a week in the small island nation, offering free medical care for those who could not afford it.

"We each brought 3 50-pound suitcases full of medicine and supplies," Cullinan said. "We were based out of Leogane, a small town west of Port-au-Prince (the nation's capital city), and we went out into the countryside to a different village every day."

The group experienced firsthand the challenges and rewards of offering medical care in a developing nation with significant unrest and upheaval.

"We were originally supposed to travel in January, for the one-year anniversary of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but there was so much tension around the elections that it wasn't safe for us to go," Cullinan said. "But we were able to make it there in the end."

Cullinan's interest in Haiti began when she was a little girl, she said.

"My mother's best friend was married to Tom White, one of the founders of Partners in Health," Cullinan said. "He was like a second father to me, and he had done worldwide work providing medical care in places like Haiti, Rwanda, and Peru."

Cullinan grew up to be a family nurse practitioner. A colleague and friend, Susan Daoust, approached her about ten years ago to join Circle of Hope, a group based out of Christ Church in Needham. The group was planning its first trip to Haiti.

Since then, Cullinan has joined Circle of Hope every year, including in February of this year. That includes February 26 of last year, just six weeks after the earthquake.

"90 percent of the town we stayed in was destroyed, so we were sleeping in tents on the lawn of a local charity group," Cullinan said. "There were people buried in rubble, an overwhelming feeling of sadness. We treated a lot of wounds that trip."

One memorable case was that of Lovemeeka, a baby Cullinan and Daoust saved from malnutrition last year. They were reunited with Lovemeeka this year; Daoust was named the baby's godmother.

"it's wonderful to have done this so long that we have relationships with people there," Cullinan said. "We also have working relationships with two local orphanages, which we visited."

Students got important hands-on training during the trip, Cullinan said, with teachable moments happening under unusual circumstances.

Cullinan, right, and nursing student Kate Sortun suture the foot of a Haitian boy.

"We had one young man come in who had cut his foot jumping over a fence," Cullinan said. "I used the situation to teach the students about suturing, and everyone got a chance to put two stitches in the young man's foot."

Fundraising for the trip totaled about $25,000, Cullinan said, a figure that makes replicating the experience for future nursing students uncertain.

"Right now, I'm hoping to find some angel investors or a grant that will allow us to do a similar trip next year," Cullinan said. She said residents who wished to donate to the cause could do so at the group's website.

Cullinan said she hopes more students can have the experience, because she can see in herself how the experience of traveling to Haiti has changed her.

"When I first arrived in Haiti, I couldn't even imagine the filth and devastation, but that's not how I think of Haiti now," Cullinan said. "Now I see the people trying to rebuild roads and go to schools. I see the people who put on their best clothes and walk for hours just to wait to see us. I see people who are full of hope and who find joy in even the smallest things."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at

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