“Discovered in Argentina”

As a part of the 50th anniversary of the BYU College of Nursing, a book was compiled called “The Healer’s Art: 50 stories for 50 years.” It has been 15 years since this book was first published and these stories were shared. We plan to regularly post selections from this book to help each of us remember and cherish the experiences of nursing and learning the Healer’s art. 


Discovered in Argentina

Rachel Contreras-Spencer (BS ’04)

Once in a while everyone has one of those incredible experiences where one learns there is more to nursing than just the application of secular knowledge. I had the opportunity to experience such a moment in Argentina while working at a public maternity hospital. I learned to go beyond what I had learned in nursing school and discovered something that cannot be taught. Seemingly forgotten, those babies in the “abandoned” section have taught me more than they’ll ever know and will live on in my memory forever.

I had the privilege of going as a BYU nursing student to work in a maternity hospital in Argentina. The hospital was one like I had imagined it would be in a second or third world country. It had six or seven floors, old tile, broken windows, no toilet paper or soap for the patients or doctors, about one nurse for every forty-plus mothers, and one nurse for every sixteen-plus intensive care infants. There were no private rooms to rejoice in when the newborn was delivered into this world. There were no private rooms for mothers to grieve in when they experienced the loss of their creation.

I had worked in the labor room and the post partum floors; on my last day, it was finally my turn to help in the NICU. I started feeding the babies and taking temperatures. When I was finished, a corner of the room caught my eye. I asked about the babies in this section, and learned they were there because they were sick and/or abandoned.

It was known as the abandoned section because many of the parents of the sick babies couldn’t afford to pay for medical costs. Parents were left with no alternative but to leave their child there in the hands of the government who would then pay to have them treated, if they didn’t die first. The price parents paid was to never be able to see their child again. Once they signed the paper, they weren’t allowed to visit or care for their child. Unfortunately, if the mother was not there to take care of her baby, it was usually the last task of the day for the nurses. Their priority was in taking care of the babies who had parents who could pay for needed medical treatments, so these were the forgotten or “abandoned” ones.

The first one I came across was named Jose Ariel, and he indeed looked as though he had been forgotten. He had a heart abnormality and was lying in a little metal basket with a wet sheet, which reeked of emesis. He was not wearing any clothes and his diaper was overflowing. I fed him, cleaned him up, and gave him one of the blankets and clothing articles which I brought from generous people back home. He loved the attention and was able to fall right to sleep.

I then moved on to Ivan, who had hydrocephalus. He was three months old at the time and was scheduled to have a shunt placed within the next two days. The pressure that had built up was incredible. He had “sundowner’s eyes” so severe that I could see only the whites of his eyes. His head weighed about twice as much as the rest of his body, and Ivan had not developed neck muscles strong enough to hold up his head.

I went over, picked him up and cradled him in my arms. I noticed the towel he’d been laying on was also wet, only it had no odor. I bathed him, clothed him and held him. I had also been watching his temperature and noticed there was a steady increase. It had gone up to 101.4. I spoke with some of the other student nurses who had been in there before, and they told me that a day or two before, the nurses had tried to relieve some of the pressure in Ivan’s head by getting a little of the fluid out with a syringe needle, but they neglected to place a bandage on his head. It soon occurred to me that the sheet was wet with cerebral spinal fluid.

I notified the pediatrician and she said she’d be there when she finished making rounds. For me it seemed like an eternity. She confirmed that Ivan was leaking spinal fluid and most likely had an infection because his wound was left uncovered. Concerned about Ivan’s upcoming surgery, I asked if it was likely they would go ahead and operate anyway. She replied it would be up to the surgeon.

When my arms grew tired of holding him, I tried to put him down, but he just cried uncontrollably.  He loved being held, as if he had been starved for human contact. I had another student nurse hold him while I went to look for a bottle, which was no easy task. Returning about a half hour later, I held and fed him. He was ravenously hungry. I held him for hours and was able to feed him again before I left. I was the last to leave the unit and my fellow students waited for me in the van. No one came in to hurry me along, because there was an unspoken understanding.

While I held Ivan, I had plenty of time to think and reflect. I wondered what the future held for him. I watched as he lay complacently in my arms and wondered what kind of perfect spirit was inside his imperfect body. I played out in my mind the day I would be able to meet him in his perfect form after this life, and how happy I would be to see him, hug him, and talk to him. I reflected on how much I had been given in my life and how much I therefore was obligated to give. I thought about the Savior and how He loves all of God’s children.

I loved that I had the opportunity to help ease his great pain, if only for a day. The care I provided was not medical by definition; it was compassion and love. I loved that I was able to help the helpless. I know that if I had not been there as a student giving service, Ivan wouldn’t have been held and comforted. I would not have had the opportunity to show him there was someone who cared. I would have missed the lesson of a lifetime. It reaffirmed to me that I was supposed to be a nurse. I know of no greater profession wherein lies the opportunity to help heal others, both physically and spiritually.

My heart and mind go back to that place often and wonder if he ever made it to surgery and through recovery. I have since made a commitment to myself and to those I serve, that I will serve them as the Savior would serve them if He were here in my place. I want to convey to them my concern for their well being whether it is medical, emotional, or otherwise. I want them to know they are important. I want to learn The Healer’s Art, and my journey has just begun.

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