MID-CITY — Every day that Sarah Nunn shows up to work at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center on Wilshire Boulevard, she can feel pretty confident that she’s making a difference in not one country, but two.
The 29-year-old is the co-founder of Teach For Health, a nonprofit organization that trains and organizes health workers in rural communities across the globe to identify and address the health problems that they face.
Nunn directs their programs in Nicaragua, a task she manages through monthly Skype calls to the main town of San Ramon and by visiting the project area as often as she can around the demands of her full-time job as a nurse.
Her co-workers recently honored her with the Community/World Service award for her work, which the hospital supports by giving her the time off of her day job when she needs it to hop down to Nicaragua.
“Sarah was a natural selection,” said Kim Ternavan, the nursing director on the orthopedic floor. “The impact she has made on underserved populations is impressive.”
Nunn came to California from the Midwest to get a master’s degree in nursing from UC San Francisco, a school noted for its medical programs. While there, she became acquainted with a group of volunteers who had originally gone down to Nicaragua to build a bridge, but came back with another lesson.
The towns that they visited lacked basic health care services — the nearest clinic to a number of them was hours away and inconsistently open.
Nunn saw a place to make a difference.
She had attended college with the intent of eventually working for some kind of international health care organization, like Doctors Without Borders. Nunn has itchy feet — when she’s not at work, she’s traveling to Hawaii to go cliff diving or planning her next trip to Central America.
The impulse runs in the family — almost three quarters of Nunn’s family are engaged in some kind of service profession, and her grandfather traveled the world as a doctor with the Army after his children had all gone to school.
The setting didn’t hurt either.
“I love Latin America,” Nunn said. She traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico as a high school student, and fell for the neighboring region to the south.
Teach For Health, then, was a natural fit, and one that combined the knowledge Nunn had gained through her travels and schooling with communities that needed it.
The organization promotes a homegrown health care model that empowers local residents to identify the health needs in their towns and come up with ways to bring them into the light for discussion.
The success of the model relies on motivated individuals already in the towns and rural communities that want to come forward and become health evangelists in their areas, allowing people like Nunn to come in to teach them to run workshops or other forms of outreach to fix problems that they have already flagged.
Nunn and her colleagues act as mentors or consultants in the belief that permanent change cannot be imported from the outside, but rather fostered from within.
The most training that they’ve given to their cadre of health promoters is basic first aid, and even attempts to hand out first aid kits prepackaged from the United States fell flat. It wasn’t until the organization gave the promoters the flexibility to create their own kits that they became useful tools.
In other cases, murals or plays may be more appropriate than written hand outs if the people you’re trying to instruct don’t know how to read and write.
It’s touchy work — many of the problems are personal, like alcoholism, domestic violence or birth control, subjects that are difficult to broach in almost any setting.
That internal knowledge of the people and place becomes critical for addressing those kinds of issues, and also for navigating the sometimes bewildering societal norms of the region, which operates at a different speed than Nunn was used to.
Flying in for a workshop on handwashing or safe sex is only beneficial if someone shows up, and Nunn and her colleagues learned quickly that a misstep in the delicate dance governing relationships in the country could take attendance down to zero in a heartbeat.
“Every time we go, we’re figuring things out,” Nunn said. It’s reflected on the website, teachforhealth.org, which includes detailed step-by-step action plans to demonstrate the methodologies and effectiveness of the organization.
It takes a certain kind of person to jump from 12-hour shifts caring for patients at a hospital to health prevention work in a foreign country at the drop of a hat, and Sister Rita Callanan, one of Nunn’s recent patients at the hospital, has a word for it.
“Extraordinary,” she said. “It’s her courtesy, kindness and generosity. Little things like that.”