A love of teaching, learning and caring
A baby on her hip has been a way of life for Sue Perry for so long, she just can’t seem to give it up.
As a maternity nurse at Howard Young hospital in Woodruff for 36 years, she helped welcome 5,5oo babies into the world. As a mother of four and grandmother of 11, she’s watched them grow.
And now, the nursing instructor at Nicolet College continues her teaching – and learning – leading medical missions to treat the “poorest of the poor” in Mexico every year during spring break.
“I spend a lot of my time there holding babies while their mothers go through the stations at our clinic,” Sue says. “I’ve gotten such a strain on my hip that I started bringing along a sling to make it easier.”
On one occasion, after about 45 minutes, she asked the baby’s name. The interpreter told her that tradition dictates children be named after a friend or relative. This young mother was a loner, he said; she had no one in her life and no name for her child.
When the mother came for her baby, Sue passed the child over along with the sling, kissed the young mother on both cheeks, as is tradition, and said good-bye. “An hour later, I looked over and she was standing in the doorway. She smiled, pointed to the baby and said, ‘Suzanna.’ She’d named her daughter after me.”
Moments like that make the exhausting and often frightening annual trips to Mexico worthwhile, Sue says. “It is scary. We had to abandon one place because they were finding too many murdered women on the streets. And my family will tell you I am not a particularly brave person. I feel driven to do this.”
It all began when Sue turned 50. “I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree so I could teach,” she explains. “I attended Concordia University, a Christian college in Milwaukee. The last course I needed included a medical mission to Mexico.
“At first it was just something I had to check off the list to get my degree,” she says. “But the instant I met these people, I was hooked. I was selected to lead future trips, and now every spring break I take Concordia students on a week-long mission.”
The group also includes a couple of physicians, nurse practitioners and a physical therapist, according to Sue, about 60 people in all. They bring along medications and some diagnostic equipment, and create makeshift clinics in churches, schools or abandoned buildings in poor neighborhoods or places close to migrant workers – a different place every day.
“We start in the morning making sandwiches to pack for our lunch,” she says. “We also make an extra 200 to pass out to patients along with bottled water. For some of them, that ham and cheese sandwich is like Thanksgiving dinner. Mostly, they eat rice and beans and cooked cactus. Often, their wells are contaminated by cockroach feces.”
Sometimes, the Concordia group stays in the U.S., making the trip across the border each day in vans carrying their equipment. “We’ve been in mountainous areas where the drive can be pretty scary,” Sue says. “Sometimes we’ve stayed in Mexican campgrounds where the women there cooked us real homemade Mexican fare, which is mostly tasteless tortillas and beans. One morning as a treat, they made us pancakes…with beans.”
The traveling clinic has stations where the nursing students wash feet, irrigate ears, treat lice and scabies, and dispense medicine to treat parasitic worms. “We perform examinations and listen to complaints,” says Sue. “For most of these people, this is the only health care they receive all year.”
Conditions are primitive for the nursing students, who have been taught to utilize the latest technology. “Sometimes we’ll joke, ‘Hey, I need a cat scan over here!’” she says. “But we use sight and smell, look for symptoms. We do have a glucose meter to check for diabetes. If we find something serious, we’re able to bring it to the attention of the local doctor for follow-up.”
The college provides basic medications that students learn to dispense to those in need. Each student is also required to prepare a teaching project, such as proper tooth brushing or breast examinations. “We use interpreters for the instruction,” Sue explains, “but the students have to design handouts that must be in Spanish. It can be a real challenge.”
The group has been to orphanages and shelters for abused women. “My daughter went along one year and she was shocked to be in a room at a women’s shelter with so many victims of knife and gunshot wounds. We see women there rescued from drug cartels where sex slavery is pretty common.”
One of the more memorable moments for Sue came when visiting a men’s rehabilitation compound. “There were 40 men there, all in detox for meth and heroine,” she says. “I met a man, about 50, though he looked much older, named Leo. He was a scary-looking dude with gang tattoos all over.
“I overheard him speaking English and asked if he could help translate for us. Over the next three or four hours, he helped us and told us his life story. That was a real eye-opener.”
Sue was most impressed by the respect shown to her and the other missionaries. “It’s an interesting culture,” she says. “The people we see have so little, but they always treat us with respect.”
The trip affords nursing students the opportunity to not only help those in need, but to experience a very different way of life. “It can have a huge impact to see this kind poverty up close,” Sue says. “It can strengthen our faith and get our priorities jolted back into shape.”
Sue and the students travel to Mexico with clothes, sleeping bags and other necessities, but usually come home empty-handed. “I always leave everything there when I go, even my shoes,” she says. “My grandchildren sometimes give me some of their toys to take along and leave with a child.”
She does come away with something, though, that benefits Nicolet College nursing students. “Every year, I am reminded of how important good community health can be to everyone,” Sue says. “Prioritizing needs, seeing the bigger picture – it all makes its way into my everyday teaching.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.