Alaine Lugo and Angela Perez never forgot the words of one of their Mt. San Jacinto College nursing instructors: “Go where the helicopter lands, not where it takes off.”
Three years after receiving their degrees at MSJC, the two registered nurses followed the inspiring advice of instructor Dr. Wade Hagan and landed in Haiti to provide vital medical help to the victims of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck on Jan. 13.
“I think Dr. Hagan absolutely was a motivating factor,” in the decision to volunteer in Haiti, said Lugo, 37, a San Jacinto resident. “He’s just so inspiring. He always said ‘Even when you’re not my student anymore, I’m gonna be tapping on your shoulder, whispering in your ear: Go out and be a better person.’”
After graduating from MSJC in 2007, Lugo secured a job as a registered nurse at a home-care facility in Moreno Valley. A Menifee resident, Perez took on a registered nursing position at a dialysis center in Lake Elsinore. Lugo and Perez, 31, kept in touch through the social network Facebook.
When the earthquake struck Haiti and discussion about how to help heated up on Facebook, Lugo said she told Angela to count her in. Lugo offered up a volunteer effort through her parents’ Murrieta church. The two signed on.
The women each made arrangements for the care of their children, notified their jobs and got the vaccinations they would need to keep them healthy. They each spent in excess of $1,000 out of their own pockets: airfare, the required immunizations and enough cash to pay for rooms during their week-long stay in Haiti. They had to bring their own food: instant oatmeal, power bars and trail mix. They packed enough bug repellent to ward off unwanted bites.
On Feb. 27, they headed to JFK International Airport in New York and arrived in Port-au-Prince the next day.
Lugo said she wasn’t expecting what she would see.
“My initial reaction when I saw it was I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I don’t think the news did it any justice. The smell of decay and the bodies when you’re driving through town is very real … They don’t have the machinery and manpower to … get them out.”
Perez remembers the noise: Cars honking, people calling out. There were the buildings.
“You walk down the street and every single building, the ones that hadn’t fallen over, have major damage,” Angela said. “What you see is all the destroyed buildings and then in the midst of it, people going on about their lives: going shopping, there’s kids playing soccer, cars driving by. The marketplace, cooking meats and selling things.”
They described the people of Haiti as non-materialistic, family- and community-oriented, and resilient.
Perez and Lugo got to work with other medical professionals inside make-shift medical clinics in Port-au-Prince and neighboring Leogane and Buteau. The most severely injured – those with broken bones, head wounds or worse – had already been rushed to hospitals. The former MSJC students administered B-12 shots and vaccinations; doled out pills for worms; treated malnourishment, dehydration, high blood pressure, scabies. They helped with post traumatic stress disorders, sleeping problems and sore throats.
And they smiled with people. They took pictures of youngsters fascinated with their cameras and reveled in the smiles it brought to the children’s faces when they saw their images. They played on soccer fields with kids. They talked to families and bonded with the other volunteers on their team.
“It was the best experience of my life. It really was,” Lugo said.
MSJC Superintendent/President Roger Schultz praised the pair and their instructor.
“The inspiration from instructors like Dr. Hagan and the volunteer work these students have done amazes me,” Schultz said. “This shows what a positive and far-reaching impact an education here can have. Dr. Hagan continues to inspire future nurses. Alaine and Angela not only provide skilled and caring nursing to residents in this district, but they have brought their skills, knowledge and generosity to other parts of the world. I am proud.”
Hagan echoed those sentiments about his former students.
“I am extremely proud of their unselfish humanitarian caring response to the people of Haiti,” Hagan said. “I applaud Angela and Alaine for continuing to build upon the lessons learned here at MSJC and I am appreciative of the administration’s support for our nursing and allied health programs, which make it possible for our learners to reach not only clients locally and nationally, but globally as well.”
The former students credited the college for setting the stage for their futures.
“It taught me to think outside of the box and not just settle,” Angela said. “Think globally: What can you do for people? What can you do with your degree? It helped me broaden my outlook to think globally and not within my own comfort zone.”
Karin Marriott is director of marketing/public information for Mt. San Jacinto College.