For 50th birthday gift, Dot nurse chooses to serve needy

For Dot resident and nurse Debbie Thornton, instead of throwing a party for her 50th birthday she has been inspired to gift others, by spending 11 days volunteering at a hospital in Haiti.

When the earthquake devastated the country last year, Thornton, director of nursing for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s (BHCHP) facility the Barbara McGinnis House, stayed at work to hold down the fort while many of her colleagues traveled to Haiti to volunteer for the relief efforts at Haitian hospitals.

“I sort of felt I had to stay home and help support remotely by being here and allowing my staff to go,” Thornton said. “Then that was the end of it.”

But what Thornton didn’t know is that almost a year and a half later, a Northeastern University co-op student she had supervised would offer her the opportunity to help she still longed for.

The student, Nathan Shapiro-Shellaby, told her a group of a dozen recently-graduated nursing students needed a supervisor for a volunteer trip they were making to Haiti May 8, and asked if she could possibly do it.

“[I said] yes, of course, yes. It was exactly what I was hoping for,” Thornton said.

Through her colleagues and patients at the McGinnis House, a 24/7 respite care facility, the five-year Dot resident said her job makes her feel a connection to the Haitian community.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: just a couple of weeks before, Thornton’s 50th birthday had arrived, but there was nothing tangible she wanted. She went so far as to tell her daughter she didn’t want any gifts from her family, unless they could help her make a difference by sending her on a medical mission trip.

“I’m fortunate, I have the gift beyond a dollar that I can give: I’m a nurse,” she said. “I think everybody who has that calling to be a nurse, when something like this happens you just want to help, and I know that I can.”

 While on co-op at BHCHP, Shapiro-Shellaby felt a similar urge to rush to Haiti and help following the disaster, but said earthquake victims needed “supplies and stable resources,” not nursing students, as most of the initial procedures were amputations.

“When the earthquake first hit, the immediate need was for people who were competent and able and ready to provide medical care,” Thornton said. “They didn’t need students, they didn’t need non-medical staff.”

For their trip, the students and Thornton will volunteer at Hôpital Sacré Coeur in northern Haiti, located in the town of Milot, where many Haitians still receive surgeries and treatment for infections, wound care and cholera. The hospital, operated by the CRUDEM foundation, has always relied entirely on volunteers – but with patient numbers having grown from 90 a day before the earthquake to about 300 daily, the need for help is more overwhelming than ever.

“It’s going to be a challenge, I think,” Shapiro-Shellaby said of the group. “We’re used to being co-op students and assistants in a hospital, and now we’re going to be nurses in a third world country.”

In order to go, Thornton is using up two weeks of her vacation time and paid for her flights to Florida and back out of her own pocket. The students raised the money for the rest of the trip, including flights from Florida to Haiti.

As far as making Thornton’s wish come true by bringing her on as the trip’s supervisor, Shapiro-Shellaby said he never considered anyone else for the job.

“She’s been a wonderful role model – she’s an extremely compassionate nurse,” he said. “She has shown me what it means to go above and beyond for a patient.”