May 22, 2012

Our Neighbors: Love is at the heart of medicine

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — While in Costa Rica on a medical mission trip in March, Kay Greer, a registered nurse at Saint Joseph-London, learned sometimes love was stronger than medicine.

As a graduate student at the University of Tennessee (UT), Greer traveled with 23 other students in the UT College of Nursing to visit Manos Abiertas, a 100-bed patient care facility for abandoned children and disabled persons, to teach local caregivers medical life-saving techniques.

Manos Abiertas, meaning “open hands,” is ran solely by Catholic nuns. The ministry, which began 21 years ago, receives a minute amount of funding, but continues to welcome in more and more who are alone in the world or cannot care for themselves. Manos Abiertas is a safe haven for children, adolescents and adults who are blind, deaf, mute, and mobility impaired, many of whom have been abandoned by their families or former caregivers.

“The beginning of this was two best friends who came across a (Costa Rican) child who had been left to die.  They took it in and said, ‘this child deserves better than that,’ and then people started bringing in other people they’d found,” Greer said.

The two women of Catholic faith decided to become nuns.  The nuns did not have medical training so they took on one nurse to assist patients.

No one comes to the ministry to adopt the children, most of them with their own unique disabilities.  

Greer’s eyes were peeled wide open when she came to Costa Rica.  

“I expected to see poverty and what I thought about third-world life,” she said. She had visited Honduras on a Christian mission trip years before.  But Greer soon discovered the contrast in medical care between Costa Rica and home.  The nuns do not have easy access to medical supplies and use what they have and make do.

Both Greer and the nurse at Manos Abiertas give medication to patients, but Greer was taught to deliver medications to one patient at a time, following strict steps.  But this one nurse who must care for so many just doesn’t have time to spare. She doles out six medications for multiple patients while also implementing wound care and dressing changes.

“She runs constantly, and nothing that she does is in line with how nursing should be according to American standards,” Greer said.  “But everything that she does lets her accomplish the same goals.  When she comes in, the patients that are aware enough smile. They can’t speak, but they smile with huge grins.”

The care the nuns have for their patients in a third-world environment was overwhelming for Greer.  The nuns at Manos Abiertas have poured love out to their patients like mothers.  

One patient’s story resonated with Greer, and helped her accomplish her assignment to teach the nuns medical training during her seven-day stay in Costa Rica.

She was like a goddess to the nuns, Greer said, as she watched as the nuns interacted with such reverence to Abolita, or “little grandmother,” even though she never spoke a word.

Abolita, who had been caring for her disabled grandson, had medical issues of her own.  She suffered from severe muscle contractures, causing her great pain and leaving her in a curled-up position.

“She (Abolita) was a curled up ball of contractures.  Someone brought her to the nuns,” Greer said.

Abolita had 16 pressure ulcers, also known as bedsores, and, after receiving basic human awareness care, the sores decreased to four.  

During her time with the nuns of Manos Abiertas, Greer and the other nursing students taught them basic wound care, feeding, delivery of medications and CPR. The nuns were very quick and very eager to learn.

During basic wound care instruction, one nun skillfully completed a sterile dressing change in three hours on what Greer said was the worst kind of pressure ulcer.  The next day, Greer came back to the same patient and nun.

“Can I do it and you watch me?” the nun asked her.  Greer agreed, and noticed that she achieved the task better than she’d ever seen.

“I was crying at the bedside and I’m like, ‘this took me weeks to learn.’”  Greer feels like the love the nuns have for each of their patients helps them overcome many obstacles.

“And that’s how each child, each patient has done so well,” Greer said.

“I left there knowing love can be enough in almost every case,” Greer said. “There are a million really good causes, but to care for someone who can’t care for themselves, that has no one to care for them, to me, seems like the noblest cause of all.”

To learn more about Manos Abiertas or to make a donation, visit

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