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UW-Eau Claire Nursing Class Travels to Alaska

RELEASED: Dec. 19, 2005

EAU CLAIRE — When UW-Eau Claire senior nursing major Nicole Lange, Hutchinson, Minn., met an 8-year-old native Alaskan boy who had just been diagnosed with diabetes, the boy was handling the diagnosis well but was afraid to give himself the daily shot of insulin he needed.

"The boy's mother literally became sick when she learned of the diabetes, so she wasn’t around," said Lange, one of 14 UW- Eau Claire nursing majors who spent 10 days working in two Alaskan medical centers. "His dad was trying to be strong, but you could see he wanted to cry. The boy was doing great except when he had to give himself a shot — the shot made the disease more real to him and he was having a hard time."

Lange spent time with both father and son, encouraging them as they worked through their anxieties, and eventually the boy learned to give himself the shot.

"I took a lot away from that experience," Lange said. "It reinforced for me how important it is to work with the whole family when treating a child. I encouraged the boy, but I also was there to support his father. It was uncomfortable but I got through it. And next time I'm in a similar situation, I think I'll be able to word things even better."

It's those kinds of experiences that family nursing professor Susan Moch hopes students take from "Nursing Practice: Children and Families with Health Deviations," a UW-Eau Claire nursing class that's been taught in Alaska the last two summers.

In collaboration with Alaskan nurses and UW-Eau Claire nursing faculty, the students worked with patients and families on the pediatric units at the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Medical Center, both in Anchorage. Students also met with public health nurses to learn how their experiences compare to public health nursing in Wisconsin.

"It's good for students — even those planning to stay in the Midwest — to experience nursing care in a part of the country that's so different from Wisconsin," said Moch, who teaches the course with Janice Berry, an associate professor of family health nursing at UW-Eau Claire's Marshfield site. "Many of the students who've taken the class think differently because of their experiences in Alaska. They think differently about nursing, but they also think differently about ways they can make a difference in whatever community they live and work in."

By immersing the students in another culture, they can learn more in two weeks than they can in a semester of classroom instruction, said Berry, noting that the students were responsible for researching medical problems, assessing the patients and interacting with the families. "You have the students 24/7 for two weeks," she said. "It's amazing what they learn without even realizing it."

Given the size of Alaska and the fact that nearly half the population live in remote areas outside of Anchorage, it's difficult for many Alaskans to get even basic medical care for their children, said Moch, who worked as a nurse in Alaska for six years before joining the UW-Eau Claire nursing faculty. Families often have to fly to Anchorage for care, which is expensive and time consuming, she said, adding that families with sick children often are separated for long periods of time, which creates additional stress for them.

"Once you see how far they have to travel and how much it costs them to get there, you start to understand why they make the choices they make," said senior nursing major Brittany Veale, Ft. Atkinson. "It's hard for many families to go in for preventative procedures, so they don't seek medical care until their child is very sick. Families that are already stressed are even more stressed because they waited until a child's condition was severe before coming to the hospital."

And for those living in the "bush," there is often little that can be done in emergency situations, Berry said. For example, health care providers received a call that a 2-year-old had drunk kerosene but lived too far away to get to Anchorage for treatment, she said. The health care providers gave the family advice about how they might prevent the toxins from killing the child but could do little else, she said.

"Those kinds of experiences brought home to the students the idea that the distance can make a tremendous difference for many people," Berry said.

Experiencing another culture such as the one in Alaska will help make her a better nurse regardless of where she works because she will be more understanding of cultural differences and preferences, said Lange, who hopes to begin her nursing career in Wisconsin.

"I think I'll be more understanding and compassionate, and as a nurse that will make me a better advocate for my patients," Lange said. "We talk in our classes about how to interact with people of another culture. But talking about it is very different than doing it. Once you do it, it's easier to become more understanding of where people are coming from."

Veale said she has worked with families in Wisconsin but was surprised by how different family interactions were in Alaska. "There is even more of a focus on families there because the family situations are often more complex," said Veale, who hopes to work as a nurse in a large city, and expects to interact with people from many cultures.

"I was shocked by how much the families knew and understood about their children's medical conditions," said Roberta Herrick, Willard, a senior nursing student who served as a teaching assistant during the trip. "We could learn as much from the parents as we could from a textbook. That's not something I was expecting. This trip made me realize how much I still have to learn."

For many of the students, the trip was an eye-opening experience, Moch said, noting that many of the students who went had limited experiences interacting with people from other cultures.

"Many of the students who enrolled in the class had an interest in learning about other cultures but couldn't or wouldn't travel on their own or study abroad," Moch said. "This was an option that worked for them. And I think they'll be better nurses because of it."

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JB

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