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Former nursing professor shares knowledge abroad, brings university support to program

By Brooke Constance White
On November 9, 2011

When Diane Gerzevitz, a retired nursing professor at the University of Rhode Island, first became involved in Hospices of Hope in 2002, she had no idea that she would be traveling as far away as Romania to help educate nurses.

Hospices of Hope is a organization based in the United Kingdom that is dedicated to helping the terminally and chronically ill have a higher quality of life.

Gerzevitz says that the nursing program at URI first got involved in the organization when she became a board member for the U.S. branch.

"They took me on as [a] board member when they found out that, at the time here at URI, we had a chair in the study of Thanatology. They knew that I had a lot of contacts in end-of-life care," Gerzevitz said. "Through the organization, I got involved in Romanian hospices to educate their medical professionals on palliative care."

Palliative care is the area of health care related to alleviating suffering and pain in patients.

The Board Members decided to begin this education process through teleconferences with medical contacts in Romania.

Gerzevitz said that when they tried to begin the teleconferences, they came up against a huge cultural difference.

"Since [Romania] had been a Communist country up until 1989, they were very distrustful and expected us to simply lecture them," Gerzevitz said. "We had expected that those teleconferences would be more of a dialogue and conversation but instead we got a lot of blank faces."

They decided it would be  best international counterpart's trust and share medical knowledge with them by going to Romania to build relationships and work hands on with the nurses and doctors as much as a possible.

"Once we established relationships, it became much more of the give-and-take that we had wanted to begin with and we could tell that they really wanted to know us and learn from us," Gerzevitz said. "While being there on our first trip, we were able to see how much they were doing with very little resources and how they just needed us to validate their practices and be mentored."

Besides developing relationships, they also made house calls, went into communities and held educational conferences with social workers and doctors.

After building relationships during their first trip, they were able to continue educating medical professionals through teleconferencing and email communication. In 2007, they returned to put on a more formal symposium for about 50 nurses, doctors, and others in the medical profession from all over the area.

Gerzevitz says that upon their arrival back home, they continued the teleconferences with the support of the URI College of Pharmacy and URI  President David Dooley.

"Dooley's wife, Lynn Baker-Dooley, was a part of our teleconferences and wanted to come with us to Romania in 2009 but was unable to," Gerzevitz said. "The support we received from the president and Lynn [Baker-Dooley] was really wonderful."

Since then, they have linked up with Simmons College in Boston and formed a loosely organized group called the New England Alliance for Palliative Care in Romania.

When Gerzevitz and some other faculty, graduate students, and alumni from URI went back to Romania in June 2011, their main purpose was to be a part of the first Romanian-American Symposium of Palliative Care.

"During this trip, the American ambassador in Romania, Mark Gitenstein, got very involved and his wife, Libby, a nurse specialist, also became very enthusiastic about our efforts," Gerzevitz said.

She said one of the best things that has happened as a result of their efforts is that many of the women and nurses they have directly worked with have turned into experts in hospice and palliative care, and are now traveling and teaching others what Gerzevitz and her colleagues taught them.

"Besides helping educate the nurses, we have also been trying to raise funds for the Romanian nurses to travel elsewhere to attend other symposiums on medical care," Gerzevitz said. "One of the nurses we have taught has since been able to attend a palliative care course at Harvard and is now traveling and teaching others."

Gerzevitz said the university will continue to work with and be a resource for the Romanian hospices and they are very pleased their program has allowed the nurses  to teach and help each other.

"We are still involved and if they have problems or need help, they come to us," Gerzevitz said. "In Romania, they don't have good access to journals and resources so we will often hunt for articles and then email them."

In two years, when Gerzevitz leads another trip back to Romania, it will be a little different, she said

"We will be taking Romanian nurses and teachers with us and team-teaching medical professionals in Moldova," Gerzevitz said. "We have gotten them to stand on their own two feet so far and it's really exciting to see how they are able to teach the Moldovans what we have taught them."

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