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Thinking outside the hospital - Public health student learns to act globally

Posted: May 16, 2012

Elizabeth Heitkemper

Rhonda Nembhard finds people fascinating, so she pursued an undergraduate degree in anthropology from The University of Texas at Austin. She loves to travel, so she took a job as a Frontier Airlines flight attendant. She felt called to help others, so she entered The UT Austin School of Nursing’s master’s degree program.

Now, as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship recipient, Nembhard gets to put all three of her favorite things together and serve in community clinics as she studies public health at the University of Malaga in Spain.

Nursing student Rhonda Nembhard distributes anti-polio and vitamin drops to children in Nicaragua

Nursing student Rhonda Nembhard distributes anti-polio
and vitamin drops to children in Nicaragua

“After entering nursing school, I became very interested in public health because it allows me to help people make informed choices that can help them before they get sick,” Nembhard said. “At the time, I had no idea that a decision to concentrate in public health would open the door to study abroad, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.”

In preparation for the challenging one-year program in Malaga, Nembhard recently spent a month in Malpaisillo, Nicaragua, serving alongside nurses in rural clinics, treating all ages, all conditions. In a nation where resources are scarce and villages are remote, she wondered how effective her new colleagues could be. She soon found out: They not only assessed, diagnosed, treated and educated their patients, they also cleaned the clinic, kept the books and demonstrated best public health practices.

“When we made house calls, they would gently suggest that patios and doorways should be swept clean of animal dung or that buckets of water — a prime breeding ground for malaria-bearing mosquitos — should be covered or tossed,” she said.

Within every aspect of public health care, Nembhard said, nurses have an opportunity to explain why certain behaviors are preferable, how they can be implemented and why they make a difference.

“Nurses are a resource in themselves,” she added.

Nembhard credits her opportunity to serve and study overseas to the School of Nursing faculty, especially her advisor Dr. Alexandra Garcia, associate professor in Family and Public Health Nursing, and Dr. Marilyn Pattillo, associate professor of Clinical Nursing.

“Dr. Garcia put me in touch with other faculty who were pushing the boundaries in public health, such as Dr. Pattillo, who is also the Disaster Nursing Committee co-chair,” she said.

Nembhard with Juana Escobar, a nurse at the clinic in Malpaisillo, Nicaragua

Nembhard with Juana Escobar, a nurse at the clinic
in Malpaisillo, Nicaragua

The School of Nursing’s disaster preparedness is an innovative program that was created in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist bombings and offers additional support to the school’s public health outreach. Borrowing from a public health tenet that every nurse should be prepared to respond and help in his or her community during emergencies, the faculty began to develop and teach new courses so that students would be better able to assist during catastrophic events.

“Most people never step foot in a hospital or aren’t there for long,” Pattillo said.  “Nurses need to be where patients are, so we encourage our students to think outside the hospital.”

Nembhard couldn’t agree more and is eager to work alongside Spanish health care professionals and learn more about serving in the Malaga community.

And what does the compassionate, world-traveling student nurse see in her future?

“It’s a great big world and there is a lot of need for public health care and education,” Nembhard said. “After my studies in Spain, I have no doubt something will open up, and when it does, I’ll be prepared for it.”