Fifteen Minutes with Melody Webster, MSN, RN


For Melody Webster, international medical relief work is not about career development. It’s not about “adventure” or “seeing the world.”“It’s about helping people who desperately need help,” she says. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. It was one of the reasons I went into nursing.” Although it’s still relatively early in her career, Melody has made her global interests a reality, with medical service trips to several Latin American nations—including Haiti following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. A staff nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), Melody recently described her experiences and how they’ve shaped her as a nurse and a person.

How did you get started in medical mission work?
I started researching relief trips when I was in nursing school, in 2007. My first trip was to Belize, as a nursing student. It’s a primarily English-speaking Central American nation. It was a weeklong trip over spring break that consisted of medical students, dentists, a few doctors and a random nursing student—me. I joined up with a group I found after researching reputable NGOs (non-governmental organizations)—Light of the World Missions, a nonprofit organization that conducts medical clinics in the poor parts of the country. This trip was with people I'd never met, as well as my first international trip, so it was a little daunting, but at the same time very exciting. The trip was amazing. I learned so much, fell in love with relief work, and knew there would be several trips like this in my future. My second trip was after the earthquake in Haiti. By this time, I was out of school and working. When the earthquake happened, I just felt in my heart that I needed to help in some way.
How did the Haiti trip come about? Was this with the group from the University of Iowa—led by Dr. Chris Buresh in Emergency Medicine—that went to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake?
I went with people from the UI, but initially I got started through a separate relief organization. I wanted to go as soon as possible, but it was really difficult to travel to Haiti immediately after the quake—the Port au Prince airport was closed, and relief agencies had to find alternate routes to get into the country. And, of course, there was mass chaos throughout the country, as we all remember from the news reports. I got in contact with Dr. Chris Buresh via email, because I’d heard that he’d been to Haiti before, and I thought he might have a more direct way to get there. I soon learned he also was trying to find flights, with great difficulty. I was scheduled to go with a relief team through YWAM (Youth with a Mission), but the earliest availability was three weeks after the earthquake. By keeping in touch with Dr. Buresh, I learned there was a new opening on his upcoming team. I jumped at the chance to go. I was part of the UI-led second team to go down, approximately 10 days after the earthquake. There already had been a first team from Dr. Buresh’s group that went—they were doing weeklong teams. Team trips would overlap a day so they could meet and basically report off to the incoming team. Even arriving 10 days after the earthquake, mass devastation was very evident throughout the country.
What did you walk into and what did you do as part of your duties?
It was probably the most emotional, chaotic, tragic scene I’d ever experienced. There wasn’t a crisis when I went to Belize; in that situation I was just helping staff clinics in schools and seeing people who had little or no access to medical care—long-term health issues and so forth. But in Haiti, we treated people with lacerations, crush injuries, partial amputations, blunt trauma injuries, infections, dehydration, sepsis—just to mention a few.
Was it worse than what you had prepared yourself for?
I had attempted to mentally prepare myself for the worst, and it was the worst I have experienced to date. But it also was somewhat similar to life in the ICU. By that I mean it was a controlled chaos—there were doctors, nurses, and paramedics, and we all worked together amazingly well. We quickly devised a plan and method to doing things. We had surgery rooms set up, so there was some control. We had interpreters; we would have been 100 percent lost without their help. We triaged the people who needed immediate care. We saw a lot of people with life-threatening injuries. And we lost people—patients we were unable to save. We didn’t have ventilators or certain live-saving medications for example. We had to make do with what was available. I was supposed to be there for seven days, but I extended my stay. I wasn’t ready to come home. I was there for 12 days. I would have stayed longer, but it was very difficult to get flights in and out, so I had to go when I had the chance. Actually, the first time I went, the Port au Prince airport was closed, so we had to fly into the Dominican Republic and take a little puddle-jumper and land on a road where they’d cut trees on both sides to create a runway. I held my breath as we landed. I’ve been back to Haiti twice since the earthquake, most recently in April 2011. Again, this was through Dr. Buresh with World Wide Village (WWV), a nonprofit group that has several different branches. Dr. Buresh works with their Community Health Initiative. WWV also does work in schools, orphanages, and with nutrition projects.
Are there other nurses or staff from MICU who have traveled to Haiti?
Yes. In fact, I’ve talked some of my colleagues into going. It’s a tremendous experience, and I encourage others to give it a try. I should note the April 2011 trip was more like the "normal" Haiti groups —going to different underserved communities, setting up clinics, and providing care.
Have you done medical relief work in other countries?
Yes. I also go with a group down to Mexico and help with similar “mobile clinics” in non-crisis situations. It’s more of a sustainability kind of care. We go to the same communities twice a year and make sure people are getting follow up-care—we make sure they get six months’ worth of blood pressure medication, for example. Continuity of care is very important in all facets, but especially in these areas where access to medicine and care is basically non-existent. This group is affiliated with the Vineyard Church. Katie Iverson, a PA who works at UI Hospitals and Clinics, and her husband, Dr. William Iverson, coordinate the Mexico trip.
Obviously, your nurse managers and colleagues have been able to make these trips happen, schedule-wise.
Absolutely. They’ve been wonderful. Every time I’ve asked to go on one of these trips, they have been more than accommodating in working with my schedule. The first time I wanted to go after the Haiti earthquake, it was obviously sudden—my schedule was already completed several weeks out. They were willing to adjust my schedule and cover for me. And in fact, my nurse manager offered to give me her vacation time. They even gave me donations that were purchased out of pocket. It was amazing. At the time, I’d only worked here barely a year and hadn't had to ask for such a span of time off. I didn’t know what to expect when I went in to ask if I could leave for two weeks from a busy ICU. I was unsure as to whether this would even be possible. I was extremely surprised and very humbled by their generosity and understanding. I really want to thank Cheryl Bombei, my nurse manager, and Lynn Comried, the assistant manager. They’re terrific.
What would you say to other nurses who have not had this type of experience, but may be considering it?
It may sound like a cliché, but it really is a life-changing experience. None of the other people I’ve talked to who have gone on these trips has expressed any regrets. Many of the nurses have said they come back with a different understanding of the world, medicine, and have a refreshed opinion of their jobs. To other nurses, I’d say this: If you are doubtful or not sure if you can do it, talk to me. I can answer questions or help find routes to go, even if you’re interested in going to a country besides Haiti or Mexico. If you need information about reputable organizations that do these sorts of trips, come see me—please! It's my passion, and I love to talk about it. I’m still learning more about different relief organizations and determining what it is about this kind of work that I most enjoy doing. With these types of missions, there are so many different groups that go, and so many different roles that nurses can play. There’s a spot for everyone who truly wants to help—even other professions like lab techs, x-ray techs, researchers, nursing assistants, etc. We will find a place for you!!
How long have you worked at UI Hospitals and Clinics?
I’ve been here two-and-a-half years. I’ve worked in the MICU the whole time.
Do you enjoy it?
I love it, and it’s not an area that I initially thought I would be able to work in. My first job was in ER and that’s the specialty I desired. When I moved here, there wasn’t an ER job available. I moved here because my husband, Derik Falk, was doing his medical residency here. He’s now a pulmonary critical care fellow. Initially, I wasn’t sure I could do MICU—even in school, it was kind of scary to walk into a room and see someone sedated, ventilated and on a dozen infusing medications—OK, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration. I never thought it would be something for me, but when I interviewed there and talked with some of the employees, I learned that it was a great area to work. Now I just love it. I can't imagine working in any other department. My co-workers and managers are the best. I also thoroughly enjoy the patient population and the complexity of the medical illnesses we deal with. I like the fast pace. It can be chaotic, but you’re in an environment where you can intervene most of the time to control the chaos. It’s a great place to work.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Ohio.
How do you unwind?
Well, the medical mission trips aren’t really a hobby, but they’re something that I really enjoy. I love to travel, in general. Horseback riding—Iowa is a great place for that! Also four-wheeling—ATVs or Jeeps. I volunteer at the Iowa City Animal Shelter walking dogs, socializing the kitties, cleaning, etc. I'm an animal nut. I also enjoy gardening—I like doing just about anything outdoors.