Nursestobe try to bring health to damaged island
By Amy Welch
Managing Editor, Florida State Times
There is a place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where 52 babies die out of every 1,000 born, and the nearest hospital for many is 40 miles away in the capitol, Majuro.
The locals in the Republic of Marshall Islands breathe balmy ocean breezes, and it is almost always sunny, but it is no island paradise. Since the '40s and '50s, when the United States conducted more than 66 nuclear-weapons tests on the islands, the survivors have not recovered.
Some carry tumors from the past, and others suffer just from the shortage of trained doctors and nurses not enough to take care of any population.
Florida State nursing students are struggling to restore health to the islands' 56,000 residents.
More people are believed to have died there from thyroid tumors, a result of U.S. hydrogen-bomb tests, than any other place on earth.
Mariesa Davis, 47, an FSU nursing student, knows what life is like on the islands. Her family spent a year there in 1989 doing missionary work. After having minor surgery and watching her daughter battle a rare disease there, Davis said she felt the immense need for better health care, more medical supplies and knowledgeable nurses and doctors.
She returned to the states with a goal to get a nursing degree and eventually start her own clinic.
On Aug. 2, FSU nursing students and a group of Tallahassee volunteers flew to Laura, an atoll 30 miles from Majuro, to do what Davis had envisioned since 1989 begin medically training the people of the Islands and jump-start the clinic she dreamed of.
The Marshall Islands are a cluster of 29 coral atolls and five small islands halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Most of the houses where as many as 10 people live together are made of plywood walls, tin roofs and coral rock floors. About half have electricity or flush toilets.
In 1944, the United States seized control of the islands from Japan and started hydrogen-bomb tests there in 1946.
The tests continued until August 1958.
By 1976, most of the now-grown children had often-deadly tumors. A Brookhaven National Laboratory report said 69 percent of the Rongelap children who were born in 1944 or later had thyroid tumors. (Rongelap is an island where nuclear bombs were tested in the '50s.)
Later, people on several islands sued the United States. In 1977, the United States settled and began to give them money for the health problems caused by radiation from the bombs.
Today, the islands are a republic in "free association" with the United States. We pay them $40 million a year and promise to defend them in war.
According to Amy Edenfield, an FSU nursing student who went with Davis to the islands, the people there need skills and adequate health care, not cash.
"We (American officials) are the ones who created the (health) problems over there and now, all we do is send them money," Edenfield said. "... They don't know what to do with it. ... They've got equipment over there that they can't fix."
So, when the volunteers arrived on the islands, they set out to repair equipment, give vaccinations and teach nurses and doctors how to use medical supplies that the United States had sent without instructions.
When Davis and her family spent time there in 1989, they discovered that the hospital was far from sanitary and had only three nurses.
So Davis, Edenfield, a Tallahassee doctor, two nurse practitioners, three small business owners, a surgical nurse and a nurse from Indiana all paid for their own trips to the islands in August, and all raised money to create a temporary clinic there.
Teaching the islanders how to use equipment and giving free health care to those who don't usually receive it were the prime missions for the volunteers. They gave 100 immunization shots the first day.
Evelyn Singer, dean of the School of Nursing, said she hopes the outing to the islands will become an annual event for her students.
"I'm very impressed with our students and their concern over the inhabitants of the Marshalls, who are so very much in need," Singer said. "I'm excited about the possibility of not only assisting the residents but also having the opportunity for expanded student experiences in this mission of mercy."
At the moment, the clinic will remain temporary. Its future will depend on nursing students like Davis, who graduates in December with a B.S.N. degree. She plans to make another trip in May 1998, if she can raise the money and the volunteers.
"There's just so much to do, and there are so few doctors and so
few nurses that anything at all that we can do to help is going to make
a difference," Davis said. "And that's what we want to do. We
want to make a difference."
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