Behind the Volunteers: Nurses

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 11, 2004 – Around the world, Peace Corps volunteers assist thousands of people; however, few people stop to think what happens when volunteers need assistance. Working behind the scenes everyday are more than 135 Peace Corps medical officers (PCMO) who respond to the medical needs volunteers encounter while serving overseas.

Every post has at least one nurse or doctor whose sole purpose is to keep the volunteers healthy and energized, so they can continue to serve their communities. Although all volunteers receive basic medical training, sometimes they also need expert advice. And that is when the PCMOs come in. They often travel hundreds of miles to treat volunteers, and every volunteer knows that their job would be more difficult without the assistance of their PCMO.

May 6th through the 12th marks National Nurses Week, beginning with RN (registered nurse) Recognition Day and ending on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, founder of nursing as a modern profession. To honor the Peace Corps’ medical officers, Maria J. Pozadas R.N., a PCMO for the Peace Corps/Bolivia, recently described some of her daily duties.

Maria J. Pozadas has been a PCMO in Bolivia since March 2001. She received her degree in nursing from Oklahoma State University and practiced nursing for 12 years before joining the Peace Corps. Prior to becoming a PCMO, Pozadas worked as a critical care and emergency room nurse in Oklahoma and California.

What prompted you to become a PCMO?

Mostly my family history. I am an American, but I was born here in Bolivia. I have two children, and my husband is an engineer. We decided to bring our kids here to Bolivia, so they would learn and experience the life here in another country. When I found out the Peace Corps was looking for a nurse, that was perfect for me. It was perfect because they were looking for a nurse who had graduated in the United States and who had an American license. They were also interested because I had traveled here regularly from birth to age 18, and I knew the country pretty well.

Walk me through some of your day to day tasks.

Being a Peace Corps nurse has been a great, rewarding, and challenging experience. I serve the volunteers, and I see them as being very brave, strong, intelligent, and giving people. My role is to give them support, and the best way I know how is by being a good nurse. What I do is treat them and counsel them. Plus, I go see them at their sites. And usually when they are at their worst, they are here. The nurses and PCMOs are very available.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Seeing the volunteers. Volunteers come in at their worst, whether sick or longing for home, and they go back fine and healthy. After they go back, to see the work that they do, and how they survive with our support, that is the most rewarding part.

How does being a PCMO differ from being a nurse in the United States?

It is totally different. In a clinic or hospital in the United States, you have more equipment and resources available. Here, in Bolivia, there are a lot of things you have to do different. You have to travel. Of course, that’s one of the things I love the most too.

What has been the most unique aspect of treating Peace Corps volunteers?

Because of my history as a critical care and ER nurse where problems are usually major, I didn’t usually think of the little things, like, say, diarrhea. We see a lot of skin and GI (gastrointestinal) problems. I also have to travel with volunteers when they are sick.

How are Peace Corps volunteers as patients?

I think they are well informed. They need guidance at the beginning to recognize different illnesses they may not be accustomed to. They also need reassurance they will get help ze different illnesses they may not be accustomed to. They also need reassurance they will get help if they need help no matter where they are in the country. But once they are comfortable with the care, they are very grateful.

What are the benefits of working for the Peace Corps versus being a nurse in the U.S.?

The two experiences are so different, they are hard to compare. I love being a Peace Corps nurse. I can see another perspective of how health care works in different situations. It’s different, but in a good way.

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