Nursing professor Susan Speraw has spent most of her career so far working with the underserved – helping immigrants, refugees, migrant workers and individuals with developmental disorders. She has worked in U.S. hospitals with displaced women and children who fled wars in El Salvador and Cambodia. She also worked in a clinic in South Central Los Angeles during the 1992 riots.
"My work has always been motivated by the mandates to love one another and to serve the least among us," Speraw said. "I was raised to love and extend caring without question, without strings – to love regardless of whether it is convenient or challenging."
In this spirit, she has spent the last 14 years involved with medical mission trips to Haiti to help those less fortunate get much needed medical attention.
Speraw’s interest began in 1993 when she moved to Chattanooga and joined a church that was raising money to build a school in Haiti. In 2002, she moved to Knoxville and began working with the Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti (CNP), an organization founded in East Tennessee to help Haitian children suffering from serious malnutrition.
Speraw learned of CNP through her daughter, Cathy Dorvil, the CNP program director who was based in Haiti. Dorvil, who was heavily influenced by her mother’s passion to help those in need, had traveled with other CNP workers to various Haitian communities teaching villagers how to get proper nutrition from the food resources available to them.
During these visits, workers encounter medical problems they are not trained to treat. Medical groups affiliated with CNP travel to Haiti several times a year, visiting villages where medical services are most needed. Speraw started organizing her own groups to travel to Haiti to help with this effort.
Once a year, Speraw’s group travels to Leogane, a town on the southern peninsula of Haiti. "It’s not easy. We work for hours at a time in 100-degree heat. We stop only for 15-minute breaks to eat and then it’s right back to work," she said, adding that in one week they run four clinics and may see as many as 1,000 patients.
Speraw’s most recent trip was last June. Her team included two nurses, two doctors, one veterinary technician, a former UT student applying to medical school, a cinematographer and a computer analyst.
The non-medical personnel usually organize the flow of patients into the clinics, help in the pharmacy or hand out eyeglasses to people with vision problems. Medical personnel focus mainly on treatable conditions that do not require long-term care, such as intestinal worms, skin infections and eye infections.
"It could be many years before these people see another doctor," Speraw said. "We want to treat the things where we can make the biggest difference in the shortest time."
Though going to Haiti was a challenge, deciding to go wasn’t, said Speraw. "The people there have massive needs, and we have the skills to share. Why wouldn’t we go?"
Speraw’s trips to Haiti, including the medical supplies and medicines she takes along, are funded mostly by donations. She plans to take another group to Haiti next summer.
According to the CIA, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with an average life expectancy of just 57 years and an illiteracy rate of nearly 50 percent. The World Health Organization reports that 60 percent of Haitians have no access to health care.
Susan Speraw directs the Homeland Security Nursing program in the UT Knoxville College of Nursing. It is the first graduate degree program of its kind in the nation. The program focuses on training nurses to be leaders and managers in mass-casualty disasters and public health emergencies.