Letters From Nurses in the Peace Corps – 1967

“Letters from Nurses in the Peace Corps” is a remarkable document that Peace Corps once preserved and is now no longer available. (5/7/18)The booklet records some 12 letters from Peace Corps nurses serving during the 1960s.

The letters are comprehensive and give detailed descriptions of where the nurses were working, the problems they encountered and how they were solving those problems.  Evidently, the booklet was used for recruiting purposes. One hopes that it also was used to evaluate and improve programs. The nurses write as individuals, but all refer to their groups. They also speak of the “girls”. Remember, back in the 60s, we were all girls! Here are some excerpts from those letters.

Gail Singer –  Niger, reported

” In my student days…we heard over and over again how a nurse must be practical, adaptable and creative; how she could carry the basic principles of cleanliness, sterility, and ingenuity to any corner of the the world and give good nursing care.  I only now am finding out what these words meant…In Niger’s only school of nursing, I am teaching 60 students – all male.”

Ruth Reese – Malaysia, “Birth in an Iban longhouse is a community affair.” Ruth goes on to describe her first experience attending a birth and how it helped shaped her plans for community health education.

Margaret V. Silkerberg  – Kabul, Afghanistan,

“My assignment is to get the Operating Room of a 65 bed mternity hospital in good running order…I began to work immediately, that means to clean systematically everything…If I remember correctly, it took us about two months to get the place in shape…while cleaning and repairing were going on, I arranged ‘classes’ for our little group, and they turned out to be the highlight of each day.”

Cindy Tice – Dacca, East Pakistan. “I have just finished a series of classes for the second year students on Pediatrics and Pediatric Nursing.”

A description of programs in Turkey:

“In Turkey, Volunteers work primarily with third and fourth years students…the Volunteer nurses lecture on basic nursing arts and conductfollow-up sessions on the wards where they give practical demonstrations of the subject matter and supervise the students’ practice. It is not easy to begin or change nursing education in Turkey.”

Vicki Johnson – Carpina, Pernambuco, Brazil

“I have submitted an outline of the classes I want to give to the personnel, to the hospital director. These included the following: (1) a course in aseptic techniques (2) a brief course on OB theory (3) totally nursing care (4) basic nursing skills – injections, cauterizations, dressing changes, etc. (5) I want to teach the cooks a little about diet preparation and nutrition. Finally, I have asked the director to give some classes on anesthesia.  This he has agreed to, but somehow I think I’ll end up doing it, as he rarely has time to give classes…”

Rita Heimkamp – Trinidad, Bolivia, wrote “…eventually we hope to make up a procedure manual so that when in doubt the nurses and new practicants will have something to refer to”

Lucille Lombardi, Cuzco, Peru.

“Lucille, after gathering information on methods is helping the Chilean nurses of Cuzco accomplish what they feel is an important step.” (Please note:  I do not know if Chile had sent nurses to Cuzco in the 60s or whether some idiot at PC/W though that Cuzco was in Chile.)

Pat Vessel wrote from Sucre, Bolivia:

“Our first day at the hospital? Well, as that page in my diary began, ‘God help us’….Now as we go into our second year, each of us has a ward, one medical, the other surgical, of 16 bed capacity each…Each of us has two students from first or second year of nursing. We teach them, by example,nursing arts, as we know them. This phase of our work is going really well…”

Linda Salsman – India, wrote of how her attitude had changed during her service.

“Perhaps I learned by mistake and example, realizing after, instead of before, maybe I became accustomed to India, maybe I grew up a little, maybe I began to think more of others than myself; perhaps I began to realize India’s need more than my own.”

Margaret Michelle McEvoy -Sokode, Togo described  the public health work done by Peace Corps nurses and Peace Corps Doctors. Dr. Richard Koenegsberger and Jean Hewitt, R.N., started a Schistosomiasis clinic. Dr. Nick Cunningham and Margaret set up clinics in eight schools to vaccinate and treat. She, as did the others, described in technical detail the work they did, but concludes:

“Some frustrations arise because the notion of work and long hours is mostly regarded as the better part of lunacy…My complaints seem as nothing, however, as I consider the poignancy of having a little one come up in the morning, curtsy, salute, and say ‘bonsoir monsieur.’ It makes the banged-up knees, the school program, the never ending line of brown backs to ‘inject’…an alive and important experience. Our job is almost baffling in its simplicity. It has been profoundly gratifying.”

As Peace Corps embarks on a brand new program with the Global Health Volunteers, it is important to remember and honor the legacy of those who went first.

11 Comments

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  • One of my friends in college was the only male student in the school of nursing. I remember how he always had a beaming smile on his face. Talk about a fox in the chicken coop.

  • Leo,
    I did not know that men could enroll in nursing school back in the olden days. I know that the military trained men to do nursing tasks but they called them medics and other macho terms.

    Did your friend every join the Peace Corps. My question is legitimate. I think that our preconceived notions of what is appropriate gender jobs can work both ways. I wonder how a male nurse might have fared in the Peace Corps.

    I spoke recently with a RPCV who was in health education in one of the former Soviet Unions. His assignment was to teach prospective mothers how to breast feed. He said it was a bit awkward, but he did it. He explained that the Soviet Union had a gender neutral perspective and that is why men were given such assignments.
    Fascinating.

    I know that you continually advocate for Peace Corps be a person-to -person program and not attempt development. I would appreciate your “serious” comment on the letters from the nurses.

  • Joanne. My friend was enrolled in the school of nursing at the U. Of Maryland in 1958-62. He did not join the Peace Corps. I have a healthy (no pun intended) for nurses and am a great advocate of allowing Nurse Practioners a greater role in health care. The letters were interesting.

  • Thank you, Leo. I honestly did not know that men could also enroll in nursing school. I would never suggest that you had anything else but a very healthy interest in the professional advancement of nurses!

    I thought that the letters from the nurses were invaluable. I think it is a rare documentation of what nurses during their service.

  • I’m surprised no letters from the Tunisia Nurse project, which was in training at the Univ of Oklahoma, with a Tunisia Ag project, and my own, Ghana-3 Geology, back in late ’62 or early ’63. A very motivated group, I remember, Nor any comments by the famous nurses of the Dominican Republic, mid ’60s.

    Lately, from Malawi, I’m hearing that today’s PCV nurses are very circumscribed and limited in what they are allowed to do, compared to the early days. Any insight into this, Joanne ? John Turnbull

  • John,

    I have no idea how the letters were selected for the recruiting brochure. The history of nurses in the Peace Corps has yet to be written, as far as I know.

    Since 2005, all Peace Corps staff, Volunteers and Trainees have been restricted in their clinical activities in order to avoid contamination with blood and bodily fluids. From the very beginning, Peace Corps people have been confronted with the lack of an adequate infrastructure to guarantee the safe handling of surgical instruments, needles, and other implements. It was and is an ongoing problem. It may well be why host country nationals who are educated to be nurses, doctors and other trained medical people, do not wish to work in many parts of their countries and prefer to work in the United States and Europe. Here iis the directive:
    “The Peace Corps Technical Guideline 310, Office of Medical Services, May 2005, 2) ELEMENTS OF HEALTH TRAINING  states:
    The PCMOs also need to remind the PC staff, Peace Corps Trainees, and Peace Corps Volunteers that V/Ts are not authorized to participate in direct health care activities. These activities include, but are not limited to, participating in immunization programs, attending or otherwise assisting with childbirths, performing phlebotomy, insertion of intravenous catheters, and other activities that may place them at risk for exposure to blood or body fluids.”

  • Some Peace Corps nurses in Mekelle, Ethiopia, demanded and received transfers because they would not work with the Bulgarian doctors who they accused of madical malpractice. That was the situation in 1963-64. One of these nurses admitted to me in 2017 that they over reacted and should had negotiated with the doctors about their differences in medical treatment of patients.

  • Registered Nurses were the most consistent profession or “trained”people to serve in the Peace Corps, from the very beginning up to the present. Their training demanded high ethical stantards and I think in early days, they were trained to never question doctors. They served in all kinds of different situations. I think their history is so important and yet we only have bits and pieces, so much of it anecdotal. Thank you for your information.

  • Published on pages 23 and 24 of the Spring 2018 “WorldView” magazine of the National Peace Corps Association is an article titled “Midwives and Paramedics: Tracking the careers of promotoras in Ecuador’s rainforests” written by me.

    On our return trip in 2013 forty years after our service, Mercedes Torres Gualtieri, RPCV Ecuador 1971-73 and I
    documented the successful results of the education provided by a team of Peace Corps Volunteer registered nurses and allied professionals including ourselves. The training was risky but technically sound, and the trainees were courageous and serious learners. Fifty young women were trained and supervised in five groups over five plus years. We found that the program had succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Many developed long careers based on their initial training. Some are now retired pensioners and some continue to be employed in Ecuador’s health care system.

    While a Cornell graduate student, I documented the program’s earliest years and progress in several papers. They are on file with the US Peace Corps in the Let Girls Learn program for reference by current Peace Corps staff and volunteers.

    Beverly Hammons, RPCV Ecuador 1970-73

  • I read the article in World View and thought how great! Thank you for sharing here. I have a question about your reports written as a Cornell graduate student. Peace Corps has an intranet system called PCLive. Are your reports available there?
    Right now, PCLive is only available to serving PCVolunteers and staff. If not there do you have a link to your reports\?

    • Joanne, thank you for your recognition of the article and for asking about PCLive.

      In 2015, then Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and I communicated several times when I shared with her my written report of the successful 2013 trip and the previous ones written while I was a Cornell graduate student. Indeed, she wrote to me that the Peace Corps would be hosting them on PCLive.

      As you explain, PCLive is only available to serving PCVs and staff. Do you know how to confirm if, in fact,
      my reports are hosted on this platform. I do not have a link to my reports.

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