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Nurse finds Jewish values at core of service to migrants

Nancy Rudner, left, with fellow volunteer Dr. Linn Larson, in the sanctuary of Tucson’s former Benedictine monastery, where medical intake takes place when migrants arrive from detention. (Courtesy Nancy Rudner)

Nancy Rudner volunteered at Tucson’s old Benedictine monastery in March, rendering medical aid to asylum-seeking migrants from Central America. It was her first stint at Casa Alitas, the shelter operated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, and as a volunteer with RNRN, the Registered Nurse Response Network, a national disaster-relief program that deploys nurses to deliver medical assistance. The experience was so rewarding that she returned in May. What she saw between her two visits stunned her. The population of migrants housed at the shelter had doubled.

Rudner, Dr.P.H., M.P.H., R.N., is on the graduate nursing faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Over her career, she has focused on improving health over the human lifespan through patient care, program planning, quality improvement, and policy.

She was at the monastery not only to provide hands-on medical treatment but also to learn. Since she speaks fluent Spanish, she was privy to intimate and sometimes painful personal stories from those fleeing the crises in their home countries.

She also was struck by the outpouring of support from local volunteers — a large number of them Jewish — working with dedication, day after day, at the shelter. She lauded the “incredible response of Jews embracing their core values to help the less fortunate.”

“Jewish values are so much a part of who I am — the values of taking our skills to help others are deeply embedded in me. It’s paying it forward, whatever help generations before us received, and we know it wasn’t easy, there were people to help.

“Most of us who grew up hearing of the Holocaust wondered what we would have done then. Our country is not being very hospitable. History is repeating itself,” she says, mentioning the M.S. St. Louis ship carrying nearly a thousand Jews that was turned away from U.S. shores in 1939, and the underground railroad of the mid-1800s that helped slaves escape the American South.

“The Jewish connection in Tucson is a great part of the humanitarian response. It is part of who we are. We were refugees to the U.S.A. because we were Jewish. Now we help refugees in the U.S.A. because we are Jewish. In a period in which we hear a lot of hate talk, it is encouraging to see these acts of humanity.”

Other nurses from previous RNRN deployments to Tucson have shared concerns about the treatment in detention at the U.S.-Mexico border, noting that many reported having their medications taken from them — for seizures and diabetes, for example — and shared stories of inadequate medical care while in custody. Also taken are their hair ties, belts, shoelaces, and jewelry, Rudner says. Nurses reported that many migrants show signs of trauma, post-traumatic stress syndrome,
dehydration, and exhaustion, as well as cold and flu symptoms, blisters, foot fungus, and rashes.

Rudner told the AJP that every Guatemalan refugee arriving at the shelter is malnourished. Medical professionals routinely underestimated every child’s age by about half. “The children were so weakened [from malnutrition caused by crop failure due to climate change] before they left” that they easily fall sick with the added trauma, travel, and “release after being detained in horrible conditions. They are not allowed showers. The air-conditioning is turned really cold. They sleep on concrete floors with mylar blankets. It is inhuman. We need to respond.”

She spoke of a father and daughter she treated. “The daughter, a young adolescent, sobbed uncontrollably, worried about her mother.” They left their home country as a family of four but were attacked en route. When the group was attacked, the coyote (human smuggler) split the family. “They had no idea what happened to the mother and son, and the girl got very sick. We finally were able to locate them. These children will be traumatized forever.

“The drug cartels are making more money transporting people instead of drugs. These are the gangs people have to pay to flee the gangs that are tormenting them in their home communities,” she says. Another mother fled with two children in hopes of joining her husband, who fled to South Carolina two years ago, Rudner recounts. The gangs that threatened to kill him transferred their interest to the family. So the mother’s asylum request can be considered, but she now has to prove she was in danger in a community where no one is literate, says Rudner.

“It is heartbreaking … How can people forget that one or two generations ago we were immigrants and refugees?” Rudner asks.

RNRN, part of the California Nurses Foundation and National Nurses United, began sending teams of nurses from across the country to Casa Alitas in February. They typically arrive on Friday and stay on campus, available for assistance, around the clock until departure at the weekend’s end. Since the first RNRN deployment to Tucson, the shelter has provided care to some 8,000 migrants through the end of May. For more information on the organization, go to www.nationalnursesunited.org/rnrn.