By Jonathan Schroeder
BYU Nursing student Emily Graham took a deep breath as she entered the surgical unit. As she inhaled, she looked at the operating table… and the blood. The patient in front of her had cut himself pretty badly. Wasting no time, Graham and the physician went to work, checking the wound for any foreign objects that might have gotten inside and placing sutures to close the wound. Once the sutures were finally placed and the wound had stopped seeping, Graham began gingerly wiping the blood off the patient. Every so often, her eyes strayed to the shackles that bound her orange jumpsuit-clad patient to the surgical table. This man had been through a lot, she thought to herself. She didn’t know anything about his past, and she didn’t need to, she reminded herself. At that moment, she was just glad to give him the care he needed.
Last spring, Graham was one of several students who participated in the At-Risk Populations clinicum for the Public and Global Health Nursing course, an experience that she and many of her fellow classmates say changed the way they view “The Healer’s Art.”
“The purpose of the course is to help students prepare to take care of patients that are vulnerable and are at more risk,” associate teaching professor Peggy Anderson explains. “The group that I teach gets to work with and serve populations that are at-risk here in the local area.”
Students enrolled in the course have the opportunity to work with patients from a wide range of backgrounds – from diabetes and disability clinic patients to inmates at adult and juvenile detention centers. Anderson says that nearly all of her students have an opportunity to volunteer for 8-10 hour shifts at either the Utah County Jail or the Utah State Prison.
“For most students, this is a cultural type experience, where they learn cultural humility,” Anderson explains. “The students learn how to care for someone without making judgments. Even though the inmate’s lifestyles may be different than the students’ lifestyles or their choices are different than what the students’ choices might be in life, the students learn to care for all of God’s children without judgment.”
“I think a lot of us are raised to think of prisoners and inmates as ‘bad people’ and that we shouldn’t associate with these individuals because they are ‘dangerous’,” Graham says. “However, I learned that many of these people are simply products of their environments, and that many of them lacked the love and opportunities I enjoyed as a child. Through learning about inmates and prison culture, I was able to see the good, the courage, and the strength many of these men possess, and also able to shake off my own prejudices and fears. I learned that everyone wants to feel loved, and everyone deserves love.”
“The inmates were really nice,” fellow student Annemarie Sudweeks adds. “I was a little scared at first because I didn’t know how they would interact. My first day was kind of weird for me, but the more I went, the more I felt comfortable interacting with them. You want to keep your distance, and keep those professional boundaries, but they’re human beings and they have feelings and you can tell that they have needs.”
During their time at the prison, students have the chance to serve inmates in a wide variety of circumstances. On any given day, students will perform physical assessments, administer and distribute medication, or change bandages for inmates.
For many students, the highlight of the course was a special musical fireside held at the women’s prison just before the end of the semester. Students shared their testimonies with many of the women they had served during their time at the prison.
“I really got to interact with the inmates in that setting more than in the clinical setting,” Sudweeks recalls. “It was cool just to see how much they want to do better and improve; you can see that they’re trying. It was reminder to me that they’re someone’s mom or daughter or grandmother and that they have a lot of potential.”
While reflecting on the impact of this course, one student wrote, “Throughout my experience I’ve been thinking about Jesus Christ and wondering about His culture. The more I look around in the world, the more I see that He does not subscribe to a single culture. When He was resurrected, He appeared to people of different cultures and He perfectly connected with people in each and every one. I could feel His love and influence as I worked with children with special healthcare needs and with inmates. I now know that Jesus’ art of healing can come to me as I attempt to understand where people are coming from. I can never perfectly understand anyone’s situation, but I know that as I try to love someone as the Savior would, the barriers of culture will crumble and I can truly connect and help people.”