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Spotlight: April Williams, RN, BSN

Williams has been to Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America many times, and she helps coordinate medical mission work for other nurses who want to go there as well. But the most rewarding of her missions has been those spent in Haiti.

For a minute, there was a chance that April Williams, RN, BSN, might never have decided to stay with her plans to enter a career in nursing.

After a lengthy professional learning experience with pediatric cancer patients, Williams finally was around the program long enough to learn how it felt to lose one of them.

She almost turned her back on healthcare on the spot.

“I called up my mom and I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” Williams said.

Her mother, whom she describes as “a bootstraps-kind-of-person” told her, “Yeah, you can.”

Williams took the pep talk, but she also opted to switch her career focus away from pediatrics. In fact, when the opportunity came to sign up for a travel-nursing program, she thought she’d be able to marry her personal and professional interests for good. The only thing she needed was some hospital experience first.

OR Today Magazine | September | Spotlight

So Williams signed on as a staff nurse to get the necessary mileage under her belt. Twenty-seven years later, however, she still hasn’t been able to get out of the OR, and is currently a fixture at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, NC.

“I don’t know what happened,” she jokes. “I like to travel, and I like to see places and meet people and learn about where they live.”

Williams did end up becoming a world traveler, with leisure destinations including Alaska, Belize, Aruba, Saint Martin, and Europe; but she’s also logged miles upon miles in mission work.

Williams has been to Asia, the Caribbean, and Central America many times, and she helps coordinate medical mission work for other nurses who want to go there as well. But the most rewarding of her missions has been those spent in Haiti.

Her most recent trip, in February 2013, took Williams to a part of the country where she’d never performed surgery before. She confessed a bit of nerves because she’d been tasked to inventory and gather the surgical supplies and equipment for the operations they’d be performing while there.

“There was a lot of angst and worry,” Williams said. “Somebody asked me, ‘April, where are you getting the list for this?’ I said, ‘the one in my head.’ This is what I’ve practiced for my whole life. I would go through scenarios in my head of how surgeries would go and what you would need.”

“The worry would be if I got there and pulled up to the surgical table and the doctor said ‘knife’, and I went ‘oh no,’” Williams joked.

“I was just scared that I was going to jeopardize the whole thing by forgetting something so crucial,” she said. “When you get there, you don’t go to the store and buy it. There’s nowhere to get it.”

But the team put the operating room together, “and it was amazing,” she said. Typically, Williams works on orthopedic cases; on the latest trip, the group was doing hernia repairs. “This gentleman told us that he had had his hydrocele for 15 years, and he was ostracized because of it,” she said. “A lot of these people are ostracized by what’s going on with them because they look different,” Williams said.

OR Today Magazine | September | SpotlightAfter the procedure was complete, the patient “offered us two goats,” she said—an enormous sum in a region where such an animal is a source of life and nourishment.

“A goat to them is like gold,” she said. “It’s overwhelming how grateful they are and how much they don’t have.”

Williams’ first trip to Haiti, right after the 2010 earthquake and the disasters that followed in its aftermath, was just as life-affirming and just as heartbreaking.

“There were funeral masses just about every morning,” she recalled. “Six weeks out of the disaster and they were still pulling bodies out. They would pull the bodies out of the rubble and we would have masses the next morning.”

One doctor on the mission called it “the single greatest orthopedic event of our time,” Williams said, for all the crush injuries the group treated.

“We actually gave two people back movement; one was supine on their back, one was immobilized on their stomach,” she said. “We put new hips in them and gave them their ability to walk again.”

Those were the moments she remembers most, Williams said; the idea that in the midst of the chaos and destruction and grief that so many people could try to take stock of those experiences to “use it in a good way, to say ‘look at everything that I have,’” she said.

“It’s just really awe-inspiring to know that God has a grand plan,” she said. “I come home and I want to purge. I have so much stuff; we have so many choices of shampoo.”

Leaving the country, her load was lighter because the staffers bequeathed whatever they could— from the tents they’d brought to sleep in during the trip right down to any empty suitcases that survivors of the disaster could use to carry their belongings.

The effort was such a collective international push, Williams recalled, that going down to breakfast, she had no idea in which language the day’s conversation would be carried.

“You’d say ‘good morning,’ and they would smile back at you,” she said. “But you can communicate without knowing the language. By the end of the week, you have friends.”

The travels have taught Williams more than she expected to learn, she said, not only about the fascinations of the human body, or of shared cultural experiences, or even her understanding of the Almighty. What they gave her, more than anything, was a sense that her life’s work could be so rewarding as to teach her about herself.

“It gives me a sense of who I am,” Williams said. “[In surgery] you might not get to see those patients [again]… but you’ve made an impact on their lives, hopefully positive,” she said.

“You do come home and think about that .”



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