Mission of Mercy: La Jolla nurse talks about her time with quake victims in Haiti

By Leigh Ann Dewey


As she watched televised coverage of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12 leaving 230,000 people dead, 2 million people homeless, and 3 million people in need of emergency aid, nurse Kim Cullings of La Jolla felt a call to action.

“When I saw footage of the quake, it was especially heart-breaking,” Cullings said. An orthopedic nurse, she said she realized the extent of the victims’ injuries. “I knew what would be needed for them to recover and how long it would take.”

Cullings decided to volunteer her skills to help the victims. As a civilian nurse at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she applied to Project HOPE, an organization that conducts humanitarian assistance programs in more than 35 countries worldwide. Since many of her fellow nurses, naval officers, were on notice for deployment in Haiti at the same time she had hoped to be there, she opted to stay behind until a better window of opportunity opened up.

Last summer, Project HOPE referred Cullings to a foundation – the Center for the Rural Development of Milot, a town in Northern Haiti. She accepted a volunteer post at the Hospital Sacre Couer in Milot, where she served from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7. She worked in medically equipped tents with the last of the earthquake survivors who awaited their final surgeries.

It was not Cullings’ first time offering her nursing skills to people in need. She began participating in medical missions in 2000, in countries such as Guyana and Uganda.

“We have so much,” she said. “When you go somewhere people have nothing, you really see how the rest of the world lives. They’re so appreciative. They don’t feel sorry for themselves. They just get on with things.”

During her trips outside of the United States, Cullings said she always notices “the tremendous need and disparity between wealth and poverty.” When you get to know the people, she said, “their desires are pretty much the same – food, shelter and school for their children. I’m so impressed, everywhere I go, about the desire for their children to get an education.”

She said many individuals touched her heart in Milot. One was Rose, a woman paralyzed after being trapped in the rubble of a building during the quake. “Rose was just so happy to be alive,” said Cullings. “I visited her everyday.” By the time Cullings left, she said Rose regarded her as a friend, and asked her not to leave.

In Milot, Cullings stayed in one of two houses near the hospital inhabited by volunteer professionals of all ages and backgrounds.

“There was such diversity,” she said. “There weren’t just medical personnel, but water systems, Internet and sanitation experts … people building infrastructure and improving these people’s lives from here on out. College students were there with not many skills, but they could teach English to the children.”

Anyone can offer their talents and help during times of need, said Cullings. “It’s not hard to make a difference,” she insisted. “When you go somewhere that has so little, anything you do can change their lives. If you wipe someone’s brow, they say thank you.”

Although the spread of cholera through Haiti had begun, Cullings’ volunteer work ended before the disease reached the hospital. Back in La Jolla, she said she remains available as a volunteer if she is needed.

She continues to follow news from Haiti, and communicates with contacts there — if and when they can be reached. The nation’s capital, Port O’ Prince is still devastated, but one place – the hospital where she volunteered and the town – has improved.

“I want to tell people that things can get better,” she said, “and to encourage them to do anything they can to help.”

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