Supporting our communities, near and far

From orphanages and hospitals in Africa to breast cancer research and support for patients here at home, UW Health nurses are there for our communities near and far.

‘Mama Susan’s’ strong bonds in Africa

January 2023 marked the 20th year for Susan Gold, BSN, RN, ACRN, and her volunteering efforts with HIV/AIDS patients in Africa. In January, she brought the latest group, now totaling 122, of UW-Madison students who are interested in global health to Africa. They help teach the “Talking Health Out Loud” curriculum on sexuality and healthy relationships that Susan developed.

Susan Gold, BSN, RN, ACRN surrounded by Tanzanian children, who affectionately refer to her as “Mama Susan.”

Susan is the only clinical nurse to have won a Fulbright Grant, a Washington Mandela Fellowship and a national Magnet Nurse of the Year Award. She said her Tanzanian patients have many questions about HIV treatments and are curious about the different treatments available in the United States.

“Being a nurse gives you credibility,” she said, “as does being trained in patient education in the UW Health HIV/AIDS Clinic.”

Susan retired from her full-time work in the UW Health HIV/AIDS Clinic but continues to work as a per-diem nurse. Her nursing achievements are more amazing considering she didn’t earn her nursing degree until the week she turned 40. She was busy raising three children and it took her more than five years to graduate, although she did graduate top in her class.

“I think being a UW Health nurse is an honor and being able to represent the UW School of Nursing all over the world is a big honor,” she said. “I so strongly believe in the Wisconsin Idea and that the education you get from the school could benefit the whole world. You have knowledge that can save lives everywhere.”

The African connection started when she and her husband, Tim, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. “The guides knew I was a nurse and said, ‘Come back and help our people,’ ’’ she said. “And when I came down off that mountain, I knew I could do anything.”

Susan first started working with AIDS orphans in Kenya. As they lived into adulthood as HIV-positive people, she saw the need for the sexuality education curriculum she developed. Her work moved to Tanzania as the security situation in Kenya worsened.

Over the years, she’s watched proudly as the global health students she’s introduced to Africa have gone on to earn degrees and become nurses, physicians, physician assistants, therapists and public health professionals. She was even able to introduce some of her grown children and grandchildren to Tanzania, where she is known as “Mama Susan.”

All heart in Rwanda

A group of nurses on the Cardiothoracic Surgery and Transplant Unit also have a strong bond with Africa after traveling to Rwanda as part of Team Heart. This volunteer group was founded by a Boston nurse who visited Rwanda and found a hospital ward full of young people whose hearts had been damaged when untreated strep throat progressed to rheumatic fever and heart valve damage. The group has been going to Rwanda to perform heart surgery since 2008.

Recently, though, the focus has shifted to building sustainable cardiac care in Rwanda, and that is where the cardiothoracic nurses come in. Nurses Alexa Callahan, BSN, RN; Mikayla Kohls, BSN, RN; and Bella Penniston, BSN, RN, have all traveled to King Faisal Hospital in Kigali to teach their Rwandan colleagues the fine points of caring for patients following heart surgery. Bella said she did international nursing work in India as a student and was thrilled to have the chance to go to Africa.

“The biggest difference is how young the patients are,’’ Bella said, noting that she was caring for teenagers with heart issues in Kigali, compared with the retirement-aged patients more common in Madison. She also enjoys working with Team Heart members from as far away as Iceland and Australia, noting that despite their different backgrounds, “health care is a universal language.”

Alexa Callahan, BSN, RN, (center) with fellow Rwandan and UW Health colleagues and some of the patients they cared for. The patients are given “Team Heart” pillows as part of their healing from a sternotomy and encouraged to use the pillows to splint for when they need to cough or sneeze, and as reminders to not use their arms when getting up from the chair, or bed. The pillows also feature a cartoon anatomical heart on the other side so nurses can show the patients which valves were fixed during their operations.

“Our role is to be mentors and to foster education for Rwandan nurses,’’ said Alexa, winner of a 2022 Nurse Excellence Award. “We’re teaching them the nuances of taking care of patients post cardiac surgery, and how to recognize the little signs that tell you if a patient is doing well or not.”

All the teaching is done at the bedside, and sometimes, the differences in resources are jarring. Alexa saw shoelaces being used to keep breathing tubes in place, and ventilator tubes being sterilized and reused. Rwandan nurses have to mix their own infusion medications.

“It’s very bare bones, with much fewer resources,’’ she said. “But the Rwandan nurses are so smart and so eager to learn. They are very passionate about cardiac care.”

Spreading cheer locally

Michelle Hornung, BSN, RN, uses her flair for beauty to help support breast cancer research at the UW Health Breast Center.

“Paying it forward always feels great,’’ said Michelle, who uses her Crazy Daisy Instagram feed to promote breast cancer awareness. A breast cancer survivor herself, Hornung was touched when her chemo clinic nurses gave her a “Nurses Inspire Nurses” T-shirt.

When she returned to work after treatment, Michelle bought the shirts for her fellow nurses on her unit. “This is our way of spreading cheer to other nurses, who are human first and nurses second,’’ she said. “We are family.”

Michelle Hornung serves as a nurse navigator in the UW Health Breast Center and has a side business called the Crazy Daisy Flower Truck. Hornung has donated flower truck experiences to the Wine, Women and Shoes Breast Center fundraiser and a “Build-a-Bouquet for Breast Cancer” to an event called Cocktails, Bouquets & Komen.

Check out more stories featuring the great work of our nurses in the 2022 Nursing Annual Report (pdf).