Student traveler inspires staff member to get on board

At universities, students are often inspired to make leaps of faith.

In this case, fourth-year medical student Jen Nomides inspired and staff member Alice Pelland leaped. Nomides met Pelland, a School of Medicine staff writer, in mid-2010. By January 2011 they were on a trip to Haiti together, for the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the country.

It was Nomides’s 10th trip to Haiti, where she has worked frequently with the non-profit group Faith & Love in Action. She received her master of public health from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 2010.

ALICE: You studied marine biology at UNC-Wilmington. What made you decide to go to medical school?

JEN: In high school my family started doing trips through Habitat for Humanity with our church. My parents instilled in me this passion to serve people and take care of their basic needs, and that that was a way to love them. During college it somehow fit together, and I realized this was a great way to line up my career goals with what I’m truly passionate about.

How did you end up at the medical school?

ALICE: I had been in environmental consulting, and I thought of how I could transfer my skills. I could write well, and I could write fast. Now, I meet with every fourth-year medical student as they are applying for residency and draft the letters of evaluation from the School of Medicine Associate Dean for Student Affairs. You guys have done some pretty amazing things.

JEN: That’s how we met!

ALICE: Your first trip to Haiti was the summer after your first year in medical school. What led you to make that trip?

JEN: I went to hear Dr. David Walmer of Family Health Ministries, Inc., speak, and he talked some about Haiti. After, I asked if there was any opportunity for me, and he put me in touch with his wife. I went down there with a medical team who left after a week. I stayed for two months.

ALICE: What inspires you so much about Haiti?

JEN: Haiti is a beautiful country with beautiful people who have a very deep joy and faith despite incredible need and suffering. I think it’s a combination of being drawn to that need and wanting to help and being inspired by the attitudes of the people that I keep going back.

What made you decide to go to Haiti with me?

ALICE: It’s simple. You came into the office, and I mentioned that I’d heard about your recent trip to Haiti. I said, “Your trip sounded so interesting,” and you said, “I’m going back in January. Why don’t you come?”

I’d really wanted to see our medical students in action internationally, but I hadn’t found an opportunity.

JEN: And you’d never done anything like that before?

ALICE: The only international travel I had ever done was to the Swiss Alps with my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. So, this was a leap of faith for me! On the first day, we landed in Port au Prince, I was so thirsty, and we rode through the streets where the poverty was oppressive. I thought, “I want to go home.” But the next day we attended a worship service at the orphanage. I looked out the window at the beautiful tropical foliage, heard the children singing, and I thought, “I want to stay forever.”

In February you announced that you’re taking a medical team there in May. I wonder what I can learn in three months that would allow me to be on a medical team. I’d go back in a heartbeat!

JEN: There’s something magnetic about that country.

ALICE: My favorite part of the trip was when I was holding one of the little girls, Betty, and she fell asleep in my arms, so I took her outside where it was cooler and quieter. Emma, another little girl, came and sat by me to get that closeness Betty was getting. I’m a foster parent, so I worried what an orphanage would be like. But these kids are family to each other.

JEN: You see students come and go every year. What is that like?

ALICE: I’ve been inspired by their commitment to service. In the class of 2011, 90 percent of the graduating class did some kind of service in medical school. The kindness of the students inspires me, as does their international experience. In the class of 2011, 36 percent of the class studied or worked in 26 other countries while in medical school.

JEN: This school has such a global focus, and that draws a unique set of students. I can see myself eventually coming back to this area and have this be kind of a home base.

ALICE: You’re graduating in May and doing your residency in California. Will you still go to Haiti?

JEN: Whenever I can.

ALICE: I want to go back with you.

JEN: We always need extra hands. Healing has little to do with medication and bandages. It has a lot to do with holding babies, touching people and letting them know you are there, that you care about their pain, that we’re all in this together. Long story short, Alice, you don’t need medical training to come on one of these medical trips!

ALICE: Well, we’re going to have to talk more about this.

JEN: I can tell you, there is a zero percent chance that we will not keep in touch.