DEBORAH O’HARA-RUSCKOWSKI was two days out of Haiti when the earthquake struck. Most people were doing everything they could to flee the country — or at least the parts hardest hit by the 2010 temblor — but O’Hara-Rusckowski was doing everything she could to get back. As a former critical care nurse and an instructor at Northeastern University’s School of Nursing, she had been providing medical care with Catholic charities in war zones and slums around the globe. But nothing prepared her for what she encountered after the Haiti disaster.
“I felt like I was reliving an episode of M*A*S*H,” the 52-year-old says of the makeshift emergency room set up outside Hopital Sacre Coeur in the northern town of Milot. “The helicopters would land in a soccer field and we would all come running. People were screaming in pain, and we were all working 20 hours a day, going on adrenaline.” It became apparent to the foreign clinicians that the local nurses lacked the experience and training to handle difficult cases without supervision. O’Hara-Rusckowski vowed that she would change that if she could.
With the help of Northeastern and the Universite Notre Dame d’Haiti, and at the request of the archbishop of Haiti, she’s accomplished that mission, setting up the only nursing school in that country accredited by the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (meaning graduates can sit for exams in the United States and Canada). Called the CRUDEM Hopital Sacre Coeur Nursing School — after the Center for Rural Development of Milot, the Massachusetts-based foundation that runs the hospital — it will officially open its doors in February. O’Hara-Rusckowski, married with two adult children, will not be running the school, instead helping from her home in Andover and visiting frequently. In addition to teaching current and aspiring nurses at the school based at Hopital Sacre Coeur, the program will educate faculty at one of the country’s existing nursing schools, revamp the curriculum countrywide, and run a master’s program to train nurse practitioners. The goal is as much to produce new nurses as it is to raise the skill level and confidence of existing ones so they can take leadership roles — whether during an unexpected crisis or just the daily crises of hospital life.