Many Happy Returns- Judy McAvoy RN reflects on her recent mission to Haiti

I have just returned from my 7th trip to Northern Haiti in the last 3 ½ years and it was, once again, an amazing experience. My name is Judy McAvoy and I am a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant and childbirth educator.  I am also one of the original members of Hands Up For Haiti, having first traveled to Haiti in March 2010 with Dr.Jill Ratner, on my first medical mission into a third world country. What could have been a one -time experience has turned into a lifelong commitment.


The notion of participating in a medical mission had been a yearning of mine since high school- but as fate would have it- life happens and personal dreams and desires often get pushed to the back burner. That is not to say my life has been a disappointment by any means- quite the contrary. I have found a career that I love, a family I adore and have had the good fortune to enjoy all this in relative comfort. My husband, Jim and I, have worked hard for the past 40 years together- raising three children-now all young adults- of whom we could not be prouder. We have provided them with a stable, loving and supportive home base, a good education, and they have all set off on their own varied paths in life. Once again after all the years of never having a minutes’ peace or quiet, we were left as a couple!

So it was with a sense of selfishness (since I was now asking to have something that I actually wanted) that I approached my family to elicit their feelings about my possible opportunity to travel to Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010. I felt I needed to do something to help the desperate people who were suffering so –but I did not know exactly WHAT I could do. It was with my family’s blessing and support that I joined Dr. Ratner on this enormous undertaking.

We had no idea what we were in for when we set off- but what we thought we were bringing and giving to the people of Haiti has come back to us a million-fold. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision being so absorbed and obsessed with what I initially thought to be a simple trip to help out after this crisis. As it turned out, we fell in love. We fell in love with the people and with the country. We were welcomed so warmly and appreciated and thanked repeatedly for our meager efforts to ease their discomfort- if only for a brief time- and for showing them that we really cared. After an eye-opening, whirlwind of a week, as we were preparing to leave, we were asked not “if” we would be coming back, but “WHEN” we would be coming back…That sealed it- we KNEW we would have to return. And return we have- numerous times now –and with numerous people of varied backgrounds, talents and skill-sets.

The focus of most of the previous trips I’ve been fortunate to be a part of has been medical. Doctors would work in various clinics and nurses would be supporting this effort.  This last trip, however, was primarily a nursing focus with eight nurses taking the lead in the planning of this educational mission and one doctor along for support.


My role was to educate both nurses and mothers. We taught student nurses at Haiti Hospital Appeal about infant resuscitation, routine newborn care, and the importance of initiating early and prolonged breastfeeding.


We taught caregivers at The Maison de Benediction- a respite center for children with special needs- about the illnesses and conditions of the children in their care.


In the slum area of Shada, we taught childbirth education to pregnant women. Even women who had a baby already seemed to be in need of this basic information about what happens during the delivery. We distributed birthing preparation kits to each woman. These kits, which contained blankets, a safe blade and strings to cut and tie the umbilical cord, and a first outfit and hat for the baby were prepared by a Girl Scout troop from Pawling NY.


Equally well attended was a class on breastfeeding to young pregnant women, and new moms with their babies. Breastfeeding a baby for at least the first year is life saving for these babies and the best way to prevent malnutrition. After speaking to this packed group for almost two hours, I was also able to provide one on one counseling to moms who were having breastfeeding problems. The biggest misconceptions about breastfeeding seemed to be that the early milk or colostrum was not good for the baby. And mothers would sometimes wait one to two days before breastfeeding the “real” milk. It took some convincing to let them know how important that early milk is. Another belief is that what a mother drinks, such as alcohol, does not affect the baby. These new moms had so many questions, I could have talked even longer.


This proved to be an extremely satisfying mission for me as I felt I had a direct impact on many of these moms and babies this time. As always at the conclusion of our missions, it becomes clear there is still so much more to do- which is why we continue to return. I am confident we will have a repeat “nursing” mission trip to pick up where we left off. I am anxiously anticipating the planning for the next one. Thank you to all who made this trip so memorable for me.