NP Student Aids Haitian Earthquake Victims

As a high school student in Rensselaer Falls, Kathleen McDonnell, RN-MS/PNP '12, went on her first of several humanitarian missions to Haiti and fell in love with the island country and its people. After the devastating 7.0 earthquake this January on its capitol, Port of Prince, McDonnell felt compelled to return as a nurse to give assistance. 

A precious little girl, one of thousands whose lives are tragically changed.

Multiple orthopedic surgeries occurred every day, but with no traction units available, traction was improvised using concrete blocks.

A full-time master’s degree student, McDonnell went to Haiti in February. She arrived three weeks after the earthquake to find a strange silence. “That’s what hit me first -- how quiet it was -- when before the airport had always been noisy and bustling with vehicles and people.” At Haitian Community Hospital, a facility outside of the capitol, she did “whatever needed to be done.”

“I am fluent in Creole so I was able to do a lot of translator work.” Translating for the orthopedic and plastic surgeons on rounds, McDonnell helped to treat wounds and provide bedside care. Many patients had amputations or severe breaks that required external fixation devices. Surgical wound infections after discharge were a big concern for lack of clean water and sanitation, she noted.

An overriding issue was that many patients had no homes to return to. “It was pretty awful. One husband became very upset because his wife had multiple fractures and they were homeless.” Yet the hospital was faced with overcrowding. This tragic fact pervaded every department of the hospital. Currently working as an obstetrics/gynecology nurse, McDonnell helped in the maternity unit there. They were “overwhelmed” with cases. “In the five days we were there, about 8 babies were delivered. It was disheartening because these mothers had nowhere to take their babies.” As both nurse and translator, McDonnell served as patient advocate to appeal such situations to hospital administrators. “We worked together for the best of the patient, and I worked to address the critical issue of discharge follow-up care instructions.”

In the face of all she witnessed, “it was a rewarding trip,” McDonnell commented. “Although I had to take time off from school, and things were horrible there, I was where I was supposed to be. We helped people get what they needed and it was a huge blessing for me. The people are incredible.”

After finishing her master’s degree, McDonnell plans on returning, but not for the short-term. “My interest is to live and work there as an NP. I absolutely love it there.”

NP Student Overcame Refugee Hardships

Elijah-Ding Dut, RN
Syracuse, NY
RN-MS Degree, Class of 2012

Shown here being congratulated by President David R. Smith, MD and Dean Elvira Szigeti, PhD, RN on stage at the White Coat Ceremony.

Elijah Dut remembers his early youth, growing up on a Sudanese farm. He thinks about his grandmother who raised him and how she once described starvation: “Starvation is as big as an elephant and as dark as our black dog.”

Unfortunately, Dut later learned firsthand what his grandmother meant. Orphaned by the age of seven, he was rounded up with other children to flee from Sudan’s genocidal warfare. Ending up at a United Nations’ camp in Kenya, he grew up among hundreds of other Sudanese “Lost Boys.” At times, he faced the terrible enormity of hunger when already scarce food supplies ran out and several days would pass without any food.  “We had to just lie down and wait,” he remembers. 

Dut endured partly because of his beloved grandmother.  “I survived because of all that my grandmother taught to me.”

At the camp, he attended classes, learned English and completed high school. In 2006, he was able to emigrate to Syracuse at the age of 24. He immediately went to work.  One of his jobs was a nursing home aide, helping mostly elderly women.  “This was a great experience for me.  I found I could relate well to them and their stories, like my grandmother told me. I paid tribute to my grandmother by helping them,” he said.

Dut went on to earn an AAS degree in nursing at Onondaga Community College in 2009. Last August, he enrolled in the RN-to-MS degree fast track program at SUNY Upstate to become a Family Nurse Practitioner. While attending full-time, Dut works as an RN in University Hospital’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department, which he finds rewarding. “I go home everyday knowing I touched someone’s life and this motivates me to keep doing what I love to do -- caring and helping patients heal emotionally and physically.” Dut also finds time to serve as co-president of the College student association, advocating for his fellow students in their pursuit of a nursing career.

“Through my success in the medical field, I hope to return the favor to my fellow Americans and be able to help others from my country find a future here as well.”

Graduate Student Achieving High Goals in Nursing

Valerie Khan, 28, can easily be considered a high achiever. With several years as a neuroscience ICU nurse at Upstate’s University Hospital (UH) and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, she was also the research coordinator for two clinical stroke trials at Northwestern University Medical Center. While working at UH, she met Upstate medical graduate, Dr. M. Asad Khan (COM ‘07), now a vascular surgeon and assistant professor at Syracuse VA Hospital, who also practices at Upstate. They married in 2007. Khan’s father, Dr. Philip Vuocolo, happens to be an Upstate medical graduate (‘85) and vascular surgeon as well.

Valerie Khan, RN
Syracuse, NY
RN-MS Degree, Class of 2012

Shown here with husband Dr. M. Asad Khan (COM ’07) at White Coat event. “It’s very exciting! I think the White Coat Ceremony symbolizes the climb toward greater education, and greater autonomy. With that comes a greater commitment and responsibility to our patients.”

“I love taking care of neurosurgery and neurology patients at the bedside,” comments Khan. In research at Northwestern, “I learned so much too about best care management for stroke patients and how to prevent reoccurrence.” She assessed stroke patients in the ER for different levels of acuity and whether they could be enrolled in studies – one involving PFA testing and the other, an experimental laser. “I followed and evaluated their progress and lab values. I rounded every morning with the neurology attending physician. I know I could bring the knowledge I’ve acquired in establishing these effective stroke management benchmarks to a future job.”

Khan enrolled in the College full time for her BS-to-MS/FNP degree, and is raising three children. She gave birth to fraternal twin boys only this summer, and the Khan’s also have a two-year-old son.

Even with life a full plate, Khan is not content simply to maintain a high GPA. She is active in the College’s student association (SACON) as vice president and hopes to involve nursing students in more community volunteering and graduate-to-undergraduate mentoring. A volunteer for UNICEF and Family to Family charities herself, “I also think the upperclassmen have a lot to offer in advice and peer tutoring to undergraduates. Going back to school is a big undertaking and it’s nice to know someone who has gone through it.”  Khan also is a SACON scholarship recipient and was selected by the president of Upstate to be a College student ambassador. 

Ultimately, Khan plans to achieve a doctoral degree in nursing, taking advantage of the College’s PhD program - soon to be launched.

© 2016 The Upstate Foundation, Inc.