Maria Suarez, a critical care nurse at St. Michael’s Medical Center has been a volunteer for Waves of Health for more than a decade, using her skills and compassion to help care for the people of Dajabon in the Dominican Republic.
Waves of Health is a nonprofit medical outreach organization that was founded by doctors and pharmacists from St. Michael’s. Their mission is to support the primary health care needs of under served communities in the developing world, and to educate others about the medical challenges in these areas.
Suarez, and several other JNESO nurses and hospital colleagues made their most recent trip in November 2018. “We send teams of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners, medical students and other volunteers every six months for one week to Dajabon, and once a year to Uganda,” said Suarez who also serves as treasurer and member of the Board of Directors for Waves of Health. “There are no paid employees, everyone volunteers and they all pay their own expenses, many using their vacation time to go on these missions,” she explained.
The teams visit about five clinics each week, starting in the City of Dajabon and then moving to smaller community clinics in other towns providing care for people of all ages, from newborns to geriatrics.
“We see over 1,000 people during the trip. These are people who need help and don’t have the resources or ability to go places for treatment,” said Suarez. “We bring our own supplies, medicine, vitamins, do health exams and provide education about issues like blood pressure control and diabetes. Patients receive care and medication for free. We are helping people on every level and the experience is amazing.”
Some other programs include STD education, prenatal health care, providing eyeglasses to those in need, and the Vitamin A initiative to make sure children under age five receive the supplements. Suarez noted that another JNESO nurse and her teenage daughter participated in this mission and tackled, among other things, lice prevention. The daughter collected hundreds of lice combs and lotions that were distributed to families while the mother taught parents how to prevent and effectively treat lice.
Suarez wears multiple hats on each mission. “I help with the coordination, patient triage, dispensing medication, education, assisting the physicians on site and I am fluent in Spanish so I can help as an interpreter. Since I have been volunteering for so long, I am also known as the go-to girl for troubleshooting,” she added.
Going back year after year offers Suarez and the team special insight into the lives of these people. “We do a Hemoglobin A1c test to monitor blood sugars and get to know them and their diet habits. We can see the progress they are making managing their diabetes and notice a difference in their health each time we visit.”
She added, “We often get to know the whole family. So, on one trip someone might be pregnant and we will educate them about prenatal care. The next trip we get know the baby and teach them about infant care. After a few years we are seeing the children who are five or six years old. It is a totally different aspect of nursing that makes it much more intimate for me.”
Suarez is so committed to this mission that even battling breast cancer didn’t slow her down. “I just didn’t go on missions for two or three years, but I never stopped being involved. I love what I do, and can’t foresee ever not doing it.”
She noted, “I have always helped people since I was kid. It is nice to pay it forward and giving without expectations is good food for the soul. Helping others is part of who I am.”
Suarez resides in Rutherford New Jersey and has been a nurse at St. Michaels for 24 years.