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Fall 2001

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“Lady Nurse”
Caring for both the privileged and the impoverished

by Kathryn Gallien

     This is retirement!” chirps Diane Fiske Haessler ’51 from her porch rocker at Fleur de Lis girls’ camp in southern New Hampshire.

     Don’t you believe it.

     She started as a Fleur de Lis camper herself, and her daughters and a granddaughter followed in turn. But for the past twenty-seven years, Haessler has returned each summer as camp nurse. Lady Nurse, as she is respectfully addressed in camp parlance, is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner, whose career roles included head nurse at a university hospital, pediatrics instructor, and part-time visiting nurse.

Haessler and a young client at a clinic in Thailand.

     Nowadays, “I’m really the official camp grandmother,” she says, and indeed she does drape a warm arm around sagging shoulders and admonish the tired and cranky to lie down and rest quietly. The nursing pretty much involves tending to coughs and colds, doling out Band-Aids, or handling the occasional sprain or broken bone. The girls come from solid middle- and upper-class backgrounds —they’re “privileged,” says Haessler, so she has little patience for whiners or malingerers. The camper who tries to parlay the sniffles into an excuse to opt out of activities is likely to be met with a firm reply: “You just have a cold. Suck it up.”

     Haessler is tough about food too. As a hundred girls aged eight to thirteen squirrel around in the cavernous barnlike dining hall, she dishes out for her table with care, offering half-bowls of tomato soup and urging that no one take more than she will eat. Haessler can’t abide waste. Milk is the worst, she says: “I can’t bear to see them fill a whole cereal bowl with milk and then wash most of it down the sink.” You can almost hear the standard lecture about how children are starving in the third world. Lady Nurse doesn’t give that lecture. But she could.

     Over the past three years, Haessler has personally tended to sick and impoverished children in remote areas of Nicaragua, Thailand, Romania, and Honduras. With her husband, Herb, a retired pediatrician and emergency medicine specialist, she is part of a team that travels to some of the world’s poorest areas to offer two weeks of medical clinics sponsored by Feed the Children. This fall, they head off on their ninth and tenth trips with the team, to Kenya for the first time and then a return to Thailand, a favorite for Haessler.

Nurse Diane Fiske Haessler ’51 enjoys a free moment in her summer-camp rocking chair.

     Each of the countries comes back in vivid detail as Haessler recalls their trips. In northern Thailand, far from the sea and its bounty, there is thyroid disease due to lack of iodine. Nicaragua, one of the poorest, is still staggering from the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. She found people there living in shacks with plastic trash bags for walls. “We regularly gave our lunches to the kids,” Haessler says. In Romania, where inflation has spiraled out of control, they gave up their food, their socks, their extra clothing.

     She remembers asking one malnourished child in rural Nicaragua, “What did you eat this morning? What did you eat this noon? What will you eat for dinner?—and each time the reply was “nothing.” Finally, his eyes brimming with tears: “We have nothing.” The medical team provided beans and rice from their supply truck, but everyone knew it was just one stopgap for just one family. Yes, says Haessler, “We do weep.” She adds philosophically, “You can’t make the whole world better, but you can help in a little corner of it.”

     “Does it do any good?” she wonders aloud, and then begins to count the ways. When the teams make day trips into remote villages, setting up clinics in local school buildings, she notes, “our dentists pull 200 rotten teeth daily; we carry half a million dollars in drugs with us; we pass out 2,500 pairs of eyeglasses.” The impact of a pair of glasses is immediate and often triumphant, if sometimes humorous. “One of my favorite memories,” says Haessler, “is of an old man in the Transylvanian mountains of Romania, who we fitted with a pair of blue rhinestone glasses.”

     There are sad, even horrible cases—from the terminally ill old people for whom they can do little, to those with leprosy and untreated cancers, to civilians maimed by war. But much of what the team does is primary medicine and basic logistics. For a five-year-old boy in Nicaragua with a life-threatening irreducible hernia, the team arranged for surgery at a location two hours distant by boat, and they chipped in to pay what would have been a prohibitive cost for the operation: $150.

The Haesslers—nurse Diane and physician Herb—pose with children visiting a clinic in Nicaragua.

     For these intrepid medical volunteers, these are hardly vacations. Travel is arduous, living conditions are rough, and hours are long. There is heartbreak and there is risk. Yet mostly the team works in bare hands and feels little sense of danger. “We don’t go around the world wearing gloves!” says Haessler—“Life’s a risk.”

     At the same time, she points out, “This isn’t just altruism. It’s adventure, and friends, and meeting people so gracious, people who take you into their homes.” It’s also a continuation of the Haesslers’ life work. “We’re just doing what we’ve always done,” she says. After all, she adds with a smile, “I’m not ready to sit and rock all day.”

Kathryn Gallien is a part-time Scope writer.


© 2001 Skidmore College