Nurses First

How three women in New York are improving health care in Liberia with one simple but effective strategy.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2017
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Sophie Reeves (at lectern) / Photograph by Laura Jean Ridge

Garfield, now a professor emeritus at the School of Nursing and an international health officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admits that he tends to cast a skeptical eye on the ambitious plans of young, energetic idealists. “Many students want to get engaged in the world and do some international work,” he says. “Often, it’s a modified version of tourism: have some fun on the beach, drop by the clinic. But there are some people who really are serious and engage for the long term. I remember Laura being incredibly resilient and determined.”

Garfield spoke to Ridge about his experience in Liberia, a country that, despite being the fourth-poorest on earth, has a strong nursing culture, with four “competent to good” nursing schools. In Garfield’s view, Liberia was a place where advanced nursing practices and basic nursing education could be promoted. “That’s what I was steering Laura toward, but she didn’t let me steer her much. She’s very entrepreneurial, and she just took off and made it all happen.”

Ridge sent out e-mails to nursing schools in Liberia, laying out her idea for a nurse-led public-health initiative, and she received an eager reply from the West African College of Nursing. Representatives from the Monrovia chapter wanted to meet. Within a matter of weeks, Ridge got her yellow-fever shot and flew to Liberia.

In Monrovia, she met with the Liberian Board for Nursing and Midwifery and visited the nursing school at United Methodist University, at both the Monrovia and Ganta campuses. Ridge was surprised that the nursing leaders of Liberia were willing to spend so much time with her. It gave her confidence to forge ahead. 

Back in New York, Ridge got to work, jumping through the legal hoops to form a nonprofit and then raising enough money from friends and family to get started. The organization went live on May 12, 2013 — International Nurses Day. 

Annette Toegbaye (in green) / Photograph by Laura Jean Ridge

Ridge, Walsh, and Buesing all came to the health field after college. Ridge grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and went to Harvard thinking she’d become a lawyer. It was while doing volunteer work in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester that she saw a distinct correlation between physical and mental health. People in poor health were less likely to be happy or successful. This problem interested Ridge. She considered getting a master’s in public health, but then decided that she really wanted a clinical degree. And so she turned to nursing, an in-demand profession that had, among other qualities that appealed to her, “a strong public-health perspective.” Now she lives in Lower Manhattan with her partner, Matt Gline, and their adopted pit-bull mix, Josie (“She’s pretty much the boss of me”), and is working on her PhD in nursing.

Walsh was raised in Rye, New York, and got her BA in political science from Trinity College. She began working for a healthcare nonprofit in New York and realized she wanted “a more hands-on career.” Then she had an experience as a patient: she was treated by a nurse practitioner — a nurse with advanced training who, like a doctor, can diagnose and treat patients and prescribe medication — and was “amazed by how comprehensive her approach to my care was.” Intrigued, Walsh decided to check out the School of Nursing’s open house in Washington Heights. “I was blown away not just by the faculty, but also by how excited they were about the field, whether as nurses, clinical researchers, PhD students, nurse practitioners, midwives, or clinical nurse specialists. It seemed there was no end to where you could go with this. So I signed up, and off I went, and I haven’t looked back since.”

“The nursing model is very patient-centered and very much about ‘What does this human being in front of me need?’”

Buesing, a native of Southern California, went to Williams College, where she studied music and psychology. She was interested in health but overwhelmed by the options. She needed some advice. Her boyfriend (now her husband), Robert Buesing ’16BUS, happened to work with Matt Gline, and the two men arranged a call between Buesing and Ridge, in which Ridge described her own work as a nurse practitioner. Buesing was sold, and applied to the School of Nursing. During her first year, having become, in the course of her training, “passionate about physiology and pathophysiology,” Buesing switched to medical school. But her heart is still with the nurses.

“The nursing model is very patient-centered and very much about ‘What does this human being in front of me need?’” Buesing says. “I remember my first rotation in nursing school: my first patient was somebody who couldn’t do anything for himself, so I would clean him, feed him, move him, and get blankets for him. It’s a very nurturing role that I really love.”

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