Susan Bonnell Helps USD Nursing Students Broaden Their Horizons

Susan Bonnell


At some point during the roughly 13-hour flight (give or take a few layovers) from San Diego to the Cibao International Airport in the Dominican Republic, Associate Professor Susan Bonnell, PhD, tells the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science students joining her to expect two things: 1.) The experience of providing care to underserved communities will be one of the most transformative of their lives; and 2.) On this trip, they will encounter some of the most gracious, considerate people they will ever meet. 

For Bonnell, the arduous journey to El Cercado — a rustic township tucked away in the country’s mountainous eastern province — during USD’s Intersession has become something much more than a call to help those less fortunate. It’s a passion that’s based on a simple, yet universal philosophy: Everyone deserves to live a healthy, happy life.

“It’s a very loving, warm place. I tell students that when we’re on our way there,” says Bonnell, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees at USD, and has been a registered nurse for more than 40 years. “We don’t have hot water, and we don’t always have electricity, but the payoff is collaborating within the community to create opportunities which may lead to healthier lives.”

Each January for the past 14 years, Bonnell has been a part of an annual pilgrimage from Alcalá Park to the Dominican Republic focused on providing health and wellness checks to isolated communities in the country’s frontier region. The effort — known as the International Nursing: Dominican Republic mission trip — teams students from the Master’s Entry Nursing Program (MEPN), Advanced Practice Nursing (APN) programs and both of the doctoral preparation programs: the DNP and PhD, at the Hahn School of Nursing and Beyster Institute of Nursing Research to provide well-child examinations to the roughly 400 children who attend El Cercado’s Francisco Fe Y Alegria, a parochial school founded by Father John Cervini, the town’s Catholic parish priest.

“We’ve been coming to the Dominican Republic since 2003, but we haven’t always been in the same community,” Bonnell explains. “We were looking for a new community to engage with, and Father Cervini invited me bring students there to work. The citizens greeted us warmly when we first arrived, but they were also a little leery of outsiders. It took one or two years to earn their trust.”

Bonnell’s patient-first, collaborative focus made the immersion process much easier, and allowed her to work closely with the area’s female population, who had expressed their concerns about malnutrition among their children, and a nationally higher-than-normal maternal-infant mortality rate. After reviewing the literature and compiling regional public health statistics, Bonnell and her student team discovered some alarming trends. “Several of the community’s women had died in childbirth, and the families were struggling to understand what was happening,” Bonnell says. “We determined that women in the third trimester of pregnancy were not recognizing danger signs, failing to seek late pregnancy prenatal care and failing to connect with the local physician.”

To help stem the disturbing trend of maternal deaths, Bonnell and her students developed a program designed to educate and empower lay community health care workers (CHW). A backpack with the necessary equipment such as blood pressure, blood glucose and hemoglobin monitors, as well as urinalysis capabilities, was assembled for the CHW to help monitor both maternal physical and psychosocial health. A cell phone “app” was developed to track third trimester data collection, and to identify red flags for immediate communication by the CHW with the physician in town.

The way Bonnell sees it, the process was successful because there was buy-in from community members. “We likely saved two mothers and their babies, thanks to the work of my students and the involvement of the community. You break down barriers by involving them in the process, and helping them realize that, ultimately, they are the ones making the decisions about their health and well-being.”

Each trip brings new successes, new failures, and new growth opportunities for every member of the Dominican Republic mission trip. That’s the joy of an education that challenges both students and faculty members to apply everything they’ve learned in the classroom for the common good of the community they support. “We had 23 students in this last group, and 18 came over to my house afterward,” Bonnell says. “We talked about what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do to make it better moving forward.

“This isn’t my project, this is our project. Everyone matters.”

— Mike Sauer