Nursing students leave footprint in Madagascar

Penn State Altoona nursing students Shanon Creighton (left) and Ariel Lyons

Penn State Altoona nursing students Shanon Creighton (left) and Ariel Lyons

By Rebecca Moran
Photo Credits: 2016 Operation Small Steps Team

Two Penn State Altoona nursing students were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel abroad and gain firsthand experiences in the field of nursing. Last spring, founders of Operation Small Steps, Dr. Jack and Kari-Ann Rocco, initiated a search at Penn State Altoona for students to travel alongside medical staff for the organization’s July 2016 trip to Madagascar.

Operation Small Steps (OSS) is a non-profit medical organization focused on raising awareness of and treating clubfoot and other orthopedic conditions in underserved areas around the globe. Conditions that are routinely and effectively treated in the United States are regularly neglected in developing countries, resulting in devastating and unnecessary disability. OSS partners with national and global experts in the field of pediatric orthopedics and clubfoot treatment to alleviate suffering and enrich the quality of life for those afflicted with this debilitating condition.

In order to be eligible, a student had to be enrolled in the second degree nursing program at Penn State Altoona and submit an application which included a project proposal detailing a problem that he/she planned to address while abroad and how the plan would be implemented in Madagascar, even after the medical mission trip ended. Dr. Rocco and Kari-Ann were among the committee members who selected the two students, Shanon Creighton and Ariel Lyons.

“It was really great to work with Ariel and Shanon,” said Dr. Rocco, co-founder of OSS. “Their enthusiasm and professionalism were incredible assets to the team. The nursing faculty was also fantastic in helping to make this program possible. Together, we were able to provide the students with this amazing experience and in turn help our program accomplish its goals. It truly was a perfect symbiotic relationship.”

OSS partnered with another non-profit organization from the United States, Echoes of Madagascar, for the July trip. Echoes of Madagascar is committed to establishing communities based on family self-sufficiency, cooperation, support and mutual trust among them. In 2014, the two organizations launched the Madagascar Sustainable Clubfoot Initiative Program to raise awareness of clubfoot and other prevalent orthopedic issues that people in the Madagascar region, especially children, encounter. The groups work in collaboration with local clinics, hospitals, and communities.

Two physicians from Sweden’s renowned Karolinska University Hosptial also accompanied the OSS team for a successful mission—Eva Pontén, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery, and Sahar Nejat, M.D., from the Department of Pediatrics. OSS is hopeful that opportunities for collaboration with Karolinska Institutet will continue to develop. Karolinska Institutet is one of the largest and most respected medical research universities in the world. Since 1901, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has selected the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine.

Dr. Rocco remarked, “OSS was fortunate to have brought along Dr. Eva Pontén and Dr. Sahar Nejat. They were a fantastic addition to the program and a great source of international exchange and professional enrichment. They were both the highest level of colleagues for us to share the experience with, adding further depth and interest to the program for everyone involved.”

Dr. Rocco is an orthopedic surgeon with UPMC Altoona Elite Orthopaedics. As founders of OSS, Dr. Rocco and Kari-Ann travel abroad for mission trips to Madagascar to raise awareness and provide medical treatment for clubfoot and other orthopedic conditions. Local fundraising efforts, like the annual Rocctoberfest in Altoona, help support Operation Small Steps and its worldwide efforts.

The student trip was funded through the philanthropic support of Dr. Jack and Kari-Ann Rocco and C. Hope Poindexter, a 1972 graduate of Penn State’s College of Nursing and former Penn State Altoona student.

Student Nurse: Shanon Creighton

Operation Small Steps’ and Echoes of Madagascar’s medical mission trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being a part of such a talented team and having the ability to experience medicine at a basic level provided me with a strong foundation toward my progression into the nursing field. The education I received, coupled with the hands-on patient experience, instilled a passion to help others.

During our trip to Madagascar, we traveled by land, sea, and air to Antananarivo, Île Sainte-Marie, Île aux Nattes, Mananara, and Mandritsara to educate local communities on the treatment of clubfoot and other orthopedic conditions through Ponseti casting method and proper nutrition. Throughout our journey we not only educated, but casted individuals of all ages afflicted with clubfoot. Combining forces with Echoes of Madagascar allowed us to immerse ourselves in Malagasy culture and build strong friendships along the way.

My time in Madagascar was an experience I will never forget. It served as a cornerstone for my transition into the nursing field and will always hold a special place in my heart.

Student Nurse: Ariel Lyons

Last semester during one of our classes, we were told about an upcoming opportunity but were not told anything else. A few weeks later, several people, including Dr. Jack and Kari-Ann Rocco, came into the class and presented on an organization that assisted in correcting clubfoot—this is when I first learned about Operation Small Steps. They offered an opportunity for two of us to apply to go to Madagascar for two weeks at some point in the near future to assist in their mission. After contemplating it for a little while, I decided to apply and was accepted along with my fellow classmate Shanon. We had little time to figure things out with our summer classes, but we jumped in head first anyway—or shall I say feet first? Nervous and excited, we set out on a journey we will surely not forget.

It is impossible to fully describe this trip through this write-up, but it was nothing short of moving. It was amazing and sad to see clubfoot in the children and some young adults. It isn’t something you see a lot in the United States because it is often treated with the Ponseti casting technique early on. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the little kids with clubfoot running on the sides of their feet and playing together like any kids would; they didn’t know any different. Their lives could be very different if the condition were left untreated. We were told that sometimes such a condition can lead to a life of unfortunate circumstances, even leading them to prostitution. These kids are so much more than that, and I was so glad to see them have the opportunity to be treated.

There are certainly still some rough roads ahead, literally. There are parts of Madagascar where the roads are so rough that people cannot easily get from their homes to a treatment center. It can also be difficult to afford the treatments required to correct the condition and follow-up appointments can be difficult to keep. However, I am confident that this program will continue to grow with community support and other volunteers. I have now seen first-hand that this program is changing the care for those with clubfoot in Madagascar, one small step at a time.

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