Nursing Alumnae Change Lives in Haiti and at Home


We thought we were there to help the kids

In May 2016, two alumni of Nashville State’s School of Nursing went on a church mission trip to Haiti. “We thought our purpose in being there would be to help the kids,” Tanaka Hamilton reports. Instead, the pair ended up saving a man’s health and making a friend for life.

Tanaka and her Nashville State Nursing classmate Brittany Hurd used the Highland Park Church mission trip to Haiti as a reward to look forward to when they finished their rigorous nursing program under Dr. Cynthia Waller. According to Brittany, Tanaka talked her into the trip and promised that it would be a worthwhile experience. But when they arrived in Haiti, Brittany confessed that she was still unsure why she was there – since it wasn’t a medical mission trip, she didn’t have a sense of how her specific talents might be helpful. On Day Two of the trip, she found out exactly what her purpose was.

Something's wrong with Gel

On Day Two, Tanaka came to Brittany at breakfast. Tanaka had noticed the day before that Jimmy Gel, one of the Haitian team who supported the mission workers, was really struggling. “Gel’s walking wasn’t right, he had a limp, and his balance was really off. The pain was in his shoulder radiating all the way down his arm causing him to lean over. His right hand had also started bending in and he couldn’t straighten his fingers. And he didn’t have any feeling in his hands. Then he almost fell, and we were really concerned.”

Gel chimed in, “I had gone to doctor to see what happened with my hands. He said I needed carpal tunnel surgery, but he never said anything about my neck.” To Tanaka fresh out of nursing school, the carpal tunnel diagnosis didn’t seem to fit the symptoms. Since Brittany is a nurse on the neurological surgery floor of a Nashville hospital, Tanaka asked her to take a look. Brittany did a neuro assessment and identified the problem as a possible C5-C6 herniation affecting his nerves.

At dinner that night, the group discussed their concerns about Gel but weren’t sure what the problem was or what to do next. “Tanaka was hitting my leg under the table to speak up,” says Brittany. “So I explained that I thought I knew what the problem is, and I thought he needed surgery.”

That night, Brittany and Tanaka were in tears as they talked. “This is why I’m here. We thought we were here to help the kids but it’s Gel.”

Now what?

Haiti has few hospitals, and the type of advanced expertise that Gel needed wasn’t available. So the two nurses started brainstorming and emailed Brittany’s hospital and ask if there was anyone who could help. They said they needed to see an MRI – a simple request in the US but difficult in Haiti.

“Brittany told me I had to make an MRI and send to the team in the USA, but I didn’t know where to go,” Gel says. “In Haiti we only have one or two places where I could get an MRI.” The mission leader helped him pay for an MRI and send it to Brittany. The neuro team confirmed Brittany’s assessment and said surgery was the best option.

Gel’s American and Haitian friends discouraged him from trying to have such a delicate surgery in Haiti because of the lack of sophisticated equipment. But when he found out how much the surgery would cost in the US, he couldn’t see any way to make it happen.

Tanaka was undeterred. “We were bringing him back regardless – we were already working out a game plan. Brittany worked on the floor with the surgeon, so she had all the connections. She kept telling me, ‘Let me get back to the States and let’s see what we can do.’ When I left there and got back to the US, there was some negativity of there’s no way you can get him here. But it just made me want to fight harder.”

Brittany started talking with people at her hospital. “People were very willing to help. There’s one surgeon I would trust anyone in my family with – he’s one of the top 5 neurosurgeons in the country. He carved the time out in his schedule to do the surgery for nothing. I was working with his nurse practitioner – we were in constant contact. Then my boss, Michelle, worked with the hospital administrators and got the radiologist and anesthesiologist for free.”

One friend paid for his plane ticket. Church friends offered for him to stay with them during recovery. Gel’s visa took a while with a number of setbacks, but Brittany helped Gel get it arranged. But all the time Gel was declining. “I had always had pain in my neck from when I was little, but it was getting much worse. My right side was very weak, I couldn’t work, my hands didn’t work, I could not do anything.”

The three friends texted daily. Tanaka said, “It’s amazing when you’re here in Nashville and you’re messaging back and forth thousands of miles away in Haiti. There were times when I wish I could have just reached out and wrapped my arms around him and prayed with him. But I had to pray from so many miles away. He would text and say I’m going to the church – be praying for me. It’s almost like I could feel his pain from that far away.”

"I can feel it!"

Finally in November after all the waiting and overcoming obstacles, Gel arrived in Nashville. Tanaka and Brittany picked him up at airport. There were lots of tears as the realization hit all of them that Gel was really here and was going to get the help he needed.

The surgery was November 9, and in 45 minutes, the months of planning and hoping and praying paid off. When Gel woke up, Brittany checked on him. “He was lying in bed, tears in his eyes, looking at his hands because they finally had feeling again. It doesn’t always happen so quickly for every patient but he had results immediately – his feeling started coming back.” Gel joked, “I can feel things. I can touch things. And I can use my phone!” And when he left the hospital, the most amazing thing to him was that he could sign his own name again.

Changing lives

Tanaka and Brittany are certain that their Nashville State program is what allowed them to be in the right place at the right time to change Gel’s life and their own. “I had been at NSCC years ago for a different degree,” Tanaka said. “I came back to nursing school, and to be completely honest, I thought it might be easier than some other nursing schools. I was wrong. I was very challenged and learned so much. And I’m so glad. I love this school – I refer everyone here.”

Brittany agreed and added, “I came here because it was so affordable. And then I got here and really liked the school and the instructors. I didn’t realize that how much difference it could make where you go to nursing school because I didn’t know a lot about the program. But now that I’ve graduated from here and work in a hospital setting, there’s definitely a difference where you go to school. The hospital people, nurse managers, will say that NSCC nurses are some of the best prepared, and I believe that to be true. Because it is not easy. I’m grateful it wasn’t easy because it prepared me. I was in the right place for sure – exactly where I was supposed to be.”

When asked what they were most grateful for about this whole experience, Brittany answered, “I don’t know if there are words to adequately say. It’s just amazing how it all happened. From May to November, there were a lot of ups and downs – trying to get the visa, trying to write letters, getting the hospital to agree – a lot of moving parts. When he walked off the plane – it was really happening. My husband was at the airport. He’d never met Gel before, ever, and he was a ball of emotions, he just couldn’t stop crying. It was just a really cool experience for everyone that was there.

Tanaka added, “I’m thankful for Nashville State and to Dr. Waller for having the vision to do the nursing program. Dr. Waller was a big part of this. When we had her, we were terrified of her. She had high expectations of us – but she had a side that was so compassionate, who said if you have a dream, go after it. Don’t let your dream just stop when you graduate. I think a lot of times people don’t realize that nursing goes beyond medicine. You do get attached and you fall in love with your patients. It’s so amazing to see that reaching out to so many different people made this happen. I’m grateful beyond words.”

Gel was most eloquent of all. “Haiti needs people like Tanaka and Brittany. We have a doctor who can do the surgery, but we need more hospitals and more equipment that can help people in Haiti. If Tanaka and Brittany hadn’t come to see me, I would have died or been an invalid. I never imagined they would do that for me. It was a big job God gave them to do. I would like to say thank you to the Highland Park Church. And to the hospital and Dr. Brian, Michelle, and William. They don’t know me but for them to do that for me, I thank them. And for my family, my wife and daughter. I cannot say all the names I am thankful for. They gave me love.”

Brittany, Tanaka, and Jimmy Gel.
Brittany, Tanaka, and Jimmy Gel.

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