Mother carries on late daughter's mission to help the poor in Dominican Republic
By Michael Wojcik
CONVENT STATION - Eileen Specchio, a professor at the College of St. Elizabeth (CSE) here, traveled to the Dominican Republic last month to lead an enthusiastic team of nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students on a mission trip to care for the health needs of the island nation's desperately poor people.
Yet one of Specchio's daughters, Emily, was way ahead of the team of 65 people - at least in spirit.
"The people shouted, 'Emily's Madre' - 'Emily's mother,'" said Specchio, director of St. Elizabeth's undergraduate nursing programs, who brought the team to run San Miguel clinic of the Randolph-based Foundation for Peace organization, helping patients manage chronic diseases and promoting good health practices among the people.
There's a reason for the wild reaction to Specchio and her team, who from Aug. 4 to 9, treated workers on sugar plantations - her younger daughter, Emily, had twice missioned to this poor area two hours from the capital, Santo Domingo. In this place where living is primitive, she captured the hearts of the locals and they, in turn, also touched her heart. Sadly, Emily would never return - she died unexpectedly of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm at 21 on May 15, 2006, two days after she was graduated from the Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., with a bachelor's degree in business.
"Kids ran up to me right away, exclaiming that Emily's sister was back. It was incredible," Emily's 26-year-old sister, Kate, who visited the Dominican Republic previously and who went with their mother and aunt on last month's trip, wrote in an Internet blog on a Web site for a charity established in her memory, The Emily C. Specchio Foundation (emilyspecchofoundation.googlepages.com). "They appreciate everything."
Over five days, the team that signed up for CSE's new nursing service leadership program treated about 3,000 thankful patients - a mission long delayed for Specchio. Emily had asked her to join these trips, but she declined because she didn't speak Spanish. Today, the professor has turned a mother's unimaginable grief into caring for the world's poor, in a sense extending her hands in love in place of her daughter's compassionate hands that can longer reach out.
Emily's spirit was ahead of Specchio and Katie, a doctoral student in toxicology at Duke University, Durham, N.C., when they first traveled to the Dominican Republic together in August 2006. They both were touched seeing a photo of Emily displayed in a local church. The faith community held a service for the beloved girl they called "Emily Special." After, they clamored to meet Specchio and Kate, Emily's mother said.
'They wanted to give more'
Specchio and Kate returned to the country this past August with the team from CSE and from the School of Nursing at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. They ran clinics on the plantations, called "batays," traveling to these isolated areas, where workers don't get around to see doctors, she said.
"They (team members) were shocked to see how needy the people are. The animals are malnourished. Children play in mud contaminated with feces. It was hot. There wasn't any air conditioning," Specchio said. "But everyone wanted to offer his or her skills to help. They wanted to give more," she said.
The team set up primitive clinics by Western standards. They fashioned examination rooms from sheets. They used instruments not much more sophisticated than blood pressure cuffs. They also went out to visit homes, some of which had as many as 17 people living in them, Specchio said.
Team members assessed patients' ailments - most common were high blood pressure and diabetes - and when needed distributed donated medications, including antibiotics, vitamins and aspirin. They referred some cases to the Foundation for Peace, Specchio said.
The team also put together PowerPoint computer slide presentations on what Specchio called "basic stuff" - like hygiene and sanitation. They taught people how to cook their meats and bury fecal matter. Members of the team, some of whom hailed from countries such as China and Haiti, delivered these presentations in English and Spanish. Some members even conversed in another local language, Creole, she said.
To promote good health, they distributed "health kits" with such items as soap, shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste, Specchio said.
"They (team members) offered hope to the Dominican people that there are people who care about them," said Specchio, a parishioner of St. Lawrence the Martyr, Chester.
That caring came through the nursing service leadership program, which fits neatly with the Catholic university's mission of service learning and social justice. The trip replaces St. Elizabeth's course on community nursing needed for a bachelor's degree in nursing and also provides nurses "contact hour" credits they need for continuing education or for license renewal, she said.
Now Specchio looks to the future of the program. She hopes to create a blueprint for other nursing programs - including many who have shown interest through the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing - to replicate. That way, steady streams of nursing teams could travel to Dominican Republic to provide continuous care to help patients manage chronic illnesses. Teams also could educate locals on critical health issues such as HIV transmission, domestic violence, chronic illnesses, record keeping and, hygiene, she said.
One CSE nursing student energized by the trip, 29-year-old Jonathan Esposito of Wharton said the primitive conditions there gave him the experience using hands-on "rudimentary" diagnostic techniques not used in the United States.
"We accomplished our goal - to serve the people," said Esposito who admitted being shocked by the impoverished conditions there. "It was symbiotic relationship. We went down to provide aid, but we came back with the gratitude of the people," he said.
Perhaps Emily was smiling down on the team, her mother and sister Kate, who wrote in her blog after the trip, "Being in the Dominican makes me feel closer to Emily. It feels good to continue her legacy there and keep her dream alive."