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Lisa Thompson, RN, Ph.D., FNP-C, Assistant Professor of Global Health Sciences at the University of California in San Francisco

October 2012

Q. When did you decide to pursue a career in nursing and why?

A. After graduating from college with a degree that was not in nursing, I spent a few years studying anthropology in Peru and eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid 1980s. I became a volunteer translator with an organization that provided healthcare assistance to Central American refugees who were escaping wars in their countries. During that time, I worked with a family from El Salvador who had a deaf six-year-old girl, and she had never had her hearing tested nor had she learned formal sign language in her country. I helped the family navigate hearing tests, school applications, sign language classes for the family members, and dental and medical appointments. It was during that time that I became interested in nursing because I saw the passion of the nurses who helped this family. That experience is what led me to pursue a career in nursing.

Q. When did your passion for global healthcare and health research develop?

A. While I was traveling around the Peruvian countryside after graduation, I saw many women and children who lacked basic access to healthcare. That experience sparked my interest for wanting to learn more about how I could help underserved populations. When I began my master’s degree in nursing at San Francisco State University, I decided to return to Peru to conduct a small research study of the rural indigenous women there. I wanted to know about their health-seeking behaviors and to see how much control they thought they had over their own health. Additionally, I wanted to see who they would turn to in the event of an illness. Through my various research experiences, I learned how to train and educate people in need, both abroad and here in the U.S., on how and when to seek medical treatment.

Q. You also conducted research in Guatemala. What did your experiences there teach you as a nurse?

A. During a visit to Guatemala in 2005, I accompanied the father of a child who was dying of malnutrition to the emergency room of a local hospital. The decision to let us transport her to the hospital came after weeks of watching her dwindle down to bones and a bloated belly. The family tried giving her broth, bought antibiotics from the pharmacy and paid for private doctors for weeks before we arrived at the house, but nothing was working. After community members gave her father money for the trip, we left for the hospital.

When we arrived, the physician examined the child and immediately asked why we had waited so long to take her to the hospital. The doctor explained to the girl’s father that he needed to stay with her for the entire stay, and he agreed to stay despite his need to continue working in the fields to provide for his family. Fortunately, the little girl survived. That situation still makes me think about all of the barriers that impoverished and rural communities face every time someone is in need of care. That is why patient advocacy is a fundamental aspect of nursing.

Q. What advice do you have for other nurses interested in working internationally?

A. The most important thing is to understand where your patients are coming from before starting a conversation about how they should alter their behavior for a healthier lifestyle. It takes a lot of careful exploration and research on the different ways one can encourage behavior changes to improve a person’s health, and we need to consider doing it in a way that preserves cultural practices.

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