September 2008, Volume 8, Number 1


Photo of Marie Etienne and children in the Dominican Republic

Serving With Grace

Marie Etienne’s office is small. Her desk and two tall bookshelves are overflowing with stacks of journals, lesson plans, box files and books.

The cluttered space belies the large scope of Etienne’s influence in Miami Dade College’s nursing program, the local health care community and the various professional bodies of which she is a member.

Prominently displayed on the wall next to the door is a framed quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve,” it reads. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Etienne’s story revolves around the various ways in which she puts these wisdom-filled words into action in her capacity as a nursing instructor and administrator. Whether inspiring nursing students in the halls and classrooms of Medical Center Campus, organizing community health fairs in underserved regions of the city, or leading medical missions to the impoverished bateyes of the Dominican Republic, Etienne embodies the impulse for service that lies at the heart of King’s words and the College’s educational philosophy.

The Birth of a Leader

Etienne is very much in touch with the sacrifices that were made in order that she achieve success. For example, when asked about her upbringing, she stresses the pivotal example set by her mother, who left the uncertainty of life in Haiti for the United States.

“My mother was driven to give her six children the opportunity to create a better life for themselves,” Etienne says. “She worked two jobs in order to provide for us. This willingness to put the needs of others first made a powerful impression on me.”

Etienne quickly became very passionate about nursing, partly because she saw it as a profession informed by the same principles that she so admired in her mother. The very oath recited by nursing graduates – in a tradition dating back to Florence Nightingale – enshrines a selfless dedication to helping others as the cornerstone of the profession.

Etienne embraced this covenant, but it wasn’t until she found an institution equally committed to this value system that she felt professionally fulfilled.

“I feel very privileged to work for an institution with such an impeccable reputation in the community,” she says. “As soon as I arrived here, I knew that I had found my place.”

Learning Through Serving

Over the course of her 10-year tenure at the College, Etienne has distinguished herself by complementing her classroom instruction with numerous forays into the community that give students the often transformative experience of using their skills to improve the lives of others.

She and her students have provided services at a wide range of venues, including health fairs held at Lenora B. Smith Elementary, Little Haiti Health Center and Benjamin Franklin Elementary, to name just a few. During these events, MDC nursing students check blood pressure as well as cholesterol and sugar levels. They also provide invaluable medical advice about improving and maintaining health.

These experiences have reinforced to Etienne and her students the urgency of the plight of many local residents who otherwise have no access to health care.

“Our goal is to help eliminate health care disparities by providing assistance to underserved populations in the city,” Etienne says. “There’s always a tremendous response to the health care fairs we hold – the turnout is incredible.”

Etienne and her students encounter many individuals whose health problems have gone untreated. Tremendously high blood sugar and blood pressure levels are common.

“Some people just shrug their shoulders when we tell them that they need to get more comprehensive treatments,” Etienne says. “Many simply cannot afford to take this advice. This gap in health care has to be narrowed for the good of the entire community.”

This point wasn’t lost on Vanessa Hanna, one of Etienne’s nursing students who participated in the recent Back to School Health Fair at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in North Miami.

“Almost everyone did not know that they suffered from high blood pressure,” Hanna says. “Speaking to many people, I realized that they haven’t even seen a health care provider in years.”

As disturbing as these cases are, they pale in comparison to the conditions Etienne and her students encounter during their regular medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic.

Reaching Out Globally

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Like other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Haiti has a 200-year history of political violence and economic uncertainty.

To escape the poverty and violence, hundreds of thousands of villagers seek refuge in the Dominican Republic, where they live on bateyes, enclaves on sugarcane plantations, the Organization of American States reports.

Etienne and her students treat children and some adults on the bateyes. Many of the migrants live in tin-roof dwellings that are free of charge to the workers but lacking in hygiene, electricity, sewage and medical dispensaries, the OAS reports.

“The aim behind these trips is to enhance students’ cultural awareness and to give them a learning experience outside of the classroom,” Etienne explains. “You can’t teach someone to care in the abstract. You have to expose them to situations that allow them to get in touch with this part of themselves.”

Isabel Palacio Martínez, an adjunct professor and career services specialist at Wolfson Campus, remembers the first trip. Though she didn’t accompany Etienne and the nursing students, Martínez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, connected Etienne with government officials and medical educators.

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic are both countries struggling with difficulties,” said Martínez, a personal friend of Dominican President Leonel Fernández. “What’s real for the Haitian children living on the bateyes is also real for the Dominican children living alongside them in the same conditions.”

Etienne’s work is to be commended, Martínez said. “But the international community should also do its part to assist in meeting the needs of the Haitian people, so they wouldn’t have to suffer as they are,” she added.

MDC nursing students treated almost 1,000 patients and provided vital information about hygiene and preventative health care. The students also gained invaluable first-hand experience in recognizing and treating a wide array of conditions and ailments.

The Deeper Lesson

The extremity of the experience required the students to push their limits. Each day, they encountered and treated conditions ranging from hypertension, diabetes, and impetigo to malaria, malnutrition and scabies. Most individuals suffered from multiple ailments.

“It was really a life-changing event,” says nursing student Gabriela Verdial. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why is the world so unfair and why are there so many disparities among human beings when we are all the same?’ To keep my mind distracted, I kept myself busy. I wanted to care for as many people as possible.”

Many of the students who accompany Etienne on these missions find that the experience completely alters their outlook. This was the case for Lillian Girias, who went with Etienne on the most recent trip. “The experience was incredible. Words cannot express the feelings that go through you,” she says. “I found myself constantly reflecting on how much I have and everything I take for granted.”

But perhaps most importantly, students who traveled to the Dominican Republic or participated in local projects have the kind of experiences that put them in touch with what it means to be a caregiver who has a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

— Christopher C. Gregory-Guider and Gariot P. Louima

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