Friday, June 19, 2009

Helping Herself by Helping Others

As a nurse in the Comfort’s post-op ward, Peggy Holt specializes in giving her patients new beginnings. What they don’t realize is that they’re giving her one right back.

Peggy lost her husband, Chuck, to cancer last year, and his death threw Peggy’s future into turmoil. They were nearing retirement, and Peggy looked forward to traveling the world with Chuck. His passing left Peggy in need of a new direction. All she knew was that she “wanted to do something that made a difference.”

Peggy quit her job as a clinical research coordinator in South Carolina and began looking for volunteer nursing opportunities. “I had heard of the big white ship with the big red cross,” Peggy explained, and before long she’d submitted an application to join Continuing Promise 2009 as a Project HOPE volunteer.

Life at sea appealed to Peggy. Her husband had served in the Navy, her father in the Merchant Marine, and her son in the Coast Guard. She figured that in addition to helping people in need, working aboard the Comfort would give her a better understanding of their lives.

It’s done that, and more. Peggy boarded the Comfort in Miami on April 5, expecting to spend six weeks aboard. She is now nearing ten. She has visited Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Antigua, Panama, and Colombia with the Comfort, and has cared for the hundreds of patients—as of this writing, Continuing Promise 2009 has provided 829 surgeries—who have passed through her ward.

Together with her fellow “aft ward” nurses, Peggy plays a critical role in patients’ progress towards healthier, happier lives. During the 24-hours that patients are under her care, Peggy monitors their vital signs, checks for complications, and restores their strength. More than that, she makes sure patients can manage as well as possible without follow-up care. Most patients lack access to medical care in their own countries, and the Comfort’s sailing schedule makes follow-up visits impossible.

“Things that Americans take for granted are big deals to the people we’re helping,” Peggy said. To make those big deals manageable, Peggy teaches patients how to care for their sutures, how to avoid infection, and what side effects to watch for.

Peggy loves working with post-operative patients. With the surgeries behind them, their “anxiety is down,” Peggy explained, and the volunteers are treated to “smiles, hugs, handshakes, and ‘muchas gracias,’ and that’s always the best part.”

Several patients have indelibly marked Peggy’s experience. The baby in Haiti who had congenital cataracts removed and was able to see her mother for the first time. The 34-year-old Dominican man with a cleft-lip repair who beamed as he saw his new face in the mirror. The five-year-old Dominican girl who, after surgery to repair a femur infection, danced for the first time only hours after coming out of anesthesia.

There’s no doubt that Peggy leaves an impression on her patients as well. During the first few days of each port call, when surgeries haven’t yet begun and the aft ward beds are empty, Peggy goes ashore to assist with gynecological surgical screenings. In this way, Peggy bookends many patients’ experience with Continuing Promise 2009, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s nice to see patients before, during, and after surgeries...It builds bonds of trust and lets them know how much you care.”

With all that Peggy’s given to the mission, it’s heartwarming to know that she’s gotten something invaluable in return. Serving aboard the USNS Comfort, alongside dedicated military doctors and nurses, has given Peggy the direction for her life that she came aboard to find.
Peggy feels the tremendous gratitude for the opportunities the Navy gave her husband and her when they were a young, struggling couple.

“The Navy provided us with a stepping stone, and I feel like it’s time to pay that back,” Peggy said.

Consider Peggy’s ten weeks with Continuing Promise 2009 only a down-payment. Inspired by her time on the Comfort, Peggy plans to inaugurate a new chapter of her life when she returns home.

Look for her the next time you visit a Veterans Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. If all goes well, she’ll be working there, caring for men and women who, like her husband, proudly served their country.



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