Returning to her Roots: A PCV Gives Back

July 2, 2018

Serving in Liberia is fulfilling my childhood goal of giving back to my homeland of Africa.

I was born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and I learned about nursing/midwifery from my aunt who worked at the Ministry of Health and attended to women in both the hospital and community healthcare setting. As a young girl, I had the opportunity to visit her at a rural hospital in Lungi, near Freetown. At that time, in addition to her care of people in the community, I was mostly impressed by the white, starched uniform and “flying cap” she wore as a “nursing sister” as they were referred to under the British system.

My father recognized my desire to become a health professional. After attending two of the most prestigious secondary schools in Sierra Leone, my father sent me traveled to England to attend community college to fulfill my dream to be a health professional by going to nursing and later midwifery school.

After graduating as a British-trained Nurse/Midwife I was very interested in returning to work in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone. However, due to the shortage of nurses in the United States, nurses from Britain and other countries were being hired to fill the gap. Instead of moving to Africa, I moved to Dallas, Texas to take a position with Parkland Hospital, and my two-year contract transitioned into over 30 years working at this great institution.  Serving a socially, religiously, and culturally diverse population, Parkland became the first global mission of my midwifery career and fueled my passion for serving mothers and their newborns in underserved communities. At the turn of the millennium, I had opportunities to travel on short-term medical mission trips to eight African countries and Jamaica, beginning with Sierra Leone after the war. My quest to learn about global health challenges due to war and disease, especially with ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, led me to a conference by Seed Global Health and its partners.

The Global Health Service Partnership, with Peace Corps as one of its partners, matched me to Liberia to serve as a Nurse/Midwife Educator with the responsibility of enhancing the clinical skills of student nurses, midwives, and professional colleagues in order to combat the problem of maternal mortality and morbidity by improving care to women and their newborns. In addition, the partnership supports the re-building of Liberia’s healthcare workforce by graduating competent health professionals.

In a typical week, I spend a minimum of 30 hours in clinical education and another 20 hours in didactic or simulation teaching, student individual assessment, and support. I’ve faced challenges within the broader healthcare system including shortages of supplies and a lack of motivation to implement new, evidence-based concepts in healthcare including patient centered care.  I share these challenges with the students and staff nurses and midwives, providing support and mentoring, as well as encouraging their careers and goals. I lead by example, exhibiting professional standards that demonstrate respectful, safe care for my patients and professional respect for my colleagues.

The most meaningful time with my students is when I teach a skill and I see the glow on their faces, and that their hands and hearts are in alignment. Most importantly, I know that I am teaching them to provide safe and skilled hands in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity in Liberia. I constantly remind my students that we, as individuals, can make a difference in changing the face of healthcare in Liberia.

After hearing of my background, some students and professionals have been motivated by my challenges and successes as well as my persistence in the face of adversity. To be able to use my skills and knowledge in a global realm has allowed my passion to come full circle.

As the inspirational John F. Kennedy (who ironically signed the bill that created Peace Corps in 1961 and who was also brought to Parkland Hospital upon his assassination in 1963) once said: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.”

Waltona Cummings, Global Health Service Partnership Nurse/Midwife Educator