IRR students don’t just learn how to save lives—they actually do it.
By the time the bus pulled up to the hospital in Puerto Cabezas, it was already 1:00 a.m. After five jolting hours on the worst roads imaginable and, against all odds, the twins were still alive, their little chests fluttering like hummingbirds. The mother and father rushed into the emergency room, each clutching the body of a malnourished and dehydrated one month old. Behind them came the anxious tide of international rescue and relief and nursing students who had administered intravenous fluids and medication to the infants back at the rural outpost far removed from advanced medical treatment centers. By dawn the infant twins were stable. Three days later they had regained weight and color and they were both crying loudly, their lungs strong.
“It was a miracle they survived,” said senior IRR-paramedic student Brandon Peters. “That experience changed me as a caregiver.”
Life changing experiences come in many forms as an international rescue and relief student: memorable lectures, provocative discussions, compelling textbooks. But few classroom experiences can compare with the intense off-campus education IRR provides.
“In class, students learn all the pieces,” said director Rick Young. “We give them opportunities in the real world to put those pieces together.”
One of the most significant opportunities, and the one frequently cited by IRR graduates as their seminal bachelor’s degree experience, is the semester in Nicaragua. For four months, students divide their time working with local ambulance and firefighter crews, operating rural medical clinics, and learning to survive adverse conditions in the jungle and the open ocean, among countless other experiences in the disciplines of medicine, development, rescue, and survival.
“Many students learn best from hands-on education,” said Young. “Nicaragua is complete hands-on.”
Peters found this to be true when he went to Nicaragua during the 2016 spring semester. “You can learn only so much in a classroom,” he said. “There’s another level to be reached when you participate in something as big as saving a life.” For Brandon, that level was reached when a young and desperate couple carried their dying twins into the rural clinic.
“They were unquestionably sick,” he said, “quite malnourished and with high fevers. We spent all day rehydrating these infants with oral rehydration salts and water.”
Together with a cohort of nursing students who were visiting from Union for a week of clinical work, the IRR staff and students closed the clinic and boarded the bus to Puerto Cabezas. One of the infants had responded well to the interventions back at the clinic and was beginning to stabilize. The other seemed to be fading, his tiny body ravaged by infection and dehydration.
“Tensions were high and it got stressful,” Peters recalled. “I lost my ability to control my emotions. I didn’t know what to do for that child. He wasn’t going to make it.”
After several attempts, and with the very last IV catheter, a nursing student got a line in and they were able to provide direct rehydration and nutrition. The infant seemed to revive in the back of the careening and clattering bus. Everyone waited anxiously and in silence until reaching Puerto Cabeza, the only noise an occasional whimper of a child or the groan of the bus on ruined roads.
For Peters, it was a revelation, one of many to be found in Nicaragua.
“As a caregiver, some things will always tug at your emotions,” he said. “I’m always going to remember that moment with the infant. It was a helpless feeling.”
But Peters gleaned a valuable lesson from the traumatic experience. “I’m learning to separate my emotions from my caregiving,” he said. “My responsibility is to support the people who need care.”
Few programs in the world provide students the raw exposure to caregiving that the Nicaragua trip does for IRR students. It offers demanding and up close opportunities in a range of disciplines set against the poverty and unfamiliarity of a third-world country; opportunities that many IRR graduates will continue to seek professionally.
“Anyone can travel,” Peters said. “What makes IRR special is that it combines travel with specific professional direction.”
Far from supplanting the formal education offered on campus, this semester abroad applies what has been learned in the classroom—assessing a patient, inserting an IV, speaking medical Spanish, understanding and respecting cultures, remaining calm during emergencies, surviving alone in the wild—and provides the third and fourth year students a holistic approach to rescue and relief.
Off campus learning in Lincoln
Not all off-campus opportunities require passports and immunizations. One opportunity closer to home is the Red Cross Club, an extracurricular opportunity for students interested in medical and emergency fields—of the 52 members, most are IRR, nursing and social work students.
For one week every month, the Red Cross Club takes the lead for all disasters in Nebraska. In effect, they become the Red Cross for 168 hours. Students sign up for shifts with the knowledge that they might get a phone call at 2 a.m. in response to a tornado in northeast Nebraska, or flooding in the south, or a house fire in the city.
“We intentionally partnered with the Red Cross to afford our students these practical experiences,” said Young. “They get to see how the real world operates.”
For Peters, the club is yet another opportunity to refine his skills in preparation for his upcoming year in paramedic school, the final component before he earns his bachelor’s degree.
He recalled responding to a house fire late at night, where the firefighters were already battling the blaze. With the other students on that shift, he distributed cold water and Gatorade to the exhausted men and women emerging from the house and then met with the victims, a young family. The students distributed food, clothes, and money to the recently-homeless family, and received smiles and tears of gratitude in return.
“Just to be there and support people is a rewarding experience,” Peters said.
“Union College emphasizes service,” Young added. “There is no better service than that.”
By Michael Rohm