Coffee Talk with a Mighty Nurse: A Girl on a Mission

double-coffeeFor any nurse afflicted with wanderlust, this post is for you. Meet Kristen. She is a contagiously happy person and amazing pediatric nurse. Her story is the stuff of nurse dreams. What nurse doesn’t dream of participating in a medical mission? Kristen shaped her own dream as one of the founding board members of Faces of Tomorrow-a team of doctors, anesthesiologists, nurses, dentists, and speech therapists trotting the globe repairing cleft lips and palates.

Cleft lip and/or palate repair gives a child the chance to go to school and/or be accepted by society. Some children never attend school because of their defect. They are teased, shunned, and sometimes even abandoned by their families. Many live in hiding until given this life changing operation.

The following is a virtual interview between Kristen and me. It is the first of a series of virtual interviews for Mighty Nurse. I like to call it “Coffee Talk” as it symbolizes the moment when most nurses first meet and chat (in the break room, time willing).

Where are you from?

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in Crofton, Maryland. I moved to San Francisco in 1999 and still consider it HOME. Currently, I’m living in Bucharest, Romania.

In what area of nursing do you work?

Maternal Child Health. I started in Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I worked in various areas of pediatrics and then started travel nursing at hospitals in the Bay Area and during that time worked at UCSF, Stanford Children’s hospital, Oakland Children’s and a few Kaiser hospitals.  I ended up working at Marin General hospital on a travel contract and fell in love with the staff, patients, and hospital.  They offered to train me to work in post-partum, the newborn nursery, and at times the NICU as well as pediatrics. I love being able to work in multiple areas with women and children. It’s nice to see healthy patients and families at times unlike acute pediatrics. In addition, I started working at some underserved community clinics with adults and pediatrics to expand my skills and work in community public health.  Being part of the birth of a child and caring for the family right after birth is magical.  However, my heart still belongs to the pediatric patients-its my passion.

How long have you been a nurse?

19 years

Why volunteer?

I’ve been volunteering since I was in Brownies, then Girl Scouts and it never stopped.  I often feel like I get more out of volunteering than those who receive the services which is often hard to understand but true.  I think service is essential and something that we should all do when possible. The world has a lot of needs and those of us blessed with more can give our time, money, or whatever we have to help those less fortunate than us. I started volunteering with my children immediately.  Both of them have been around the world with me in many different capacities and its invaluable to show them the truth about life and all the disparities firsthand.  I think we are never too young or too old to get involved.  We all have things to offer and ways to help regardless of age.

What inspired you to start going on medical missions?

I was obsessed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps and loved volunteering. I had multiple overseas experiences from studying abroad in Australia to volunteering in Jamaica and living in Africa, but it was all very public health based.  I love the work but it can be extremely challenging and the process of change in those situations is very challenging and complicated on many levels.

When I started working at Johns Hopkins I met a lot of people that had lived and worked overseas. A lot of them had done medical missions and the minute I heard about it I was hooked. I also joined the community health track at Johns Hopkins and a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteers were in that program. I got involved in tons of community work, decided I was going to join the Peace Corps, and it all started from there. The seed was planted and it grew!!!  My Peace Corps position was a rural health volunteer, but there was a medical mission in the area looking for volunteers and I offered my time.  It ended up being a great fit and I worked with the organization many times throughout my volunteer time and even for a few years after I returned to California.

Tell us a little about Faces of Tomorrow?

Faces of Tomorrow is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization headquartered in Davis, California.

Faces of Tomorrow’s mission is to provide medical and surgical services to children with facial deformities around the world.  Mostly the need is for cleft lip and palate surgery.  We are culturally responsive and compassionate to the patients, their families, and the communities in which the mission serves. Faces of Tomorrow utilizes a team of volunteer health professionals and skilled individuals to keep our costs down and devote as much as 90 percent of our donations and funding to our patients and surgeries. Our primary services are corrective surgeries, remedial and corrective dental prosthesis, and speech analysis and remedial services to families and their children to improve speech difficulties. In addition, we provide educational services to families for pre/post op care, remedial health and wellness educational services to families regarding prenatal nutrition, and group discussions/ workshops. We provide these services through a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, dentists, speech therapists, and health educators.

How did you become involved?

I’m one of the founding board members of the organization.  I met most of our board members when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador.  We worked together with another organization on cleft lip palate missions and decided to keep working together after I finished the Peace Corps.  We were inspired to start our own organization because we had some different visions and goals and wanted to all work together in that capacity.  The best way to do that was to start something new. So in 2007 we founded Faces of Tomorrow with our Founding Director Dr. Brian Rubinstein.

Where will you be headed to next?

Our next mission is in the planning phase at the moment, however, we know it will be at the end of September or the beginning of October 2016. We will either be in Ecuador or Ethiopia.  In February 2017 we will be returning to the Philippines.

What is your most rewarding memory working with them? 

Truly, all moments of the missions are rewarding. It’s impossible to describe the emotions involved in such change for the patients and their families. If I had to pick my most rewarding moment it would be the first mission I ever did in 2001. After this 3-month old baby came back from surgery, I held her in my arms amazed and we all cried. Besides that moment I would say my first mission with our new organization. It was surreal that all of our hardworking and dreaming turned into a reality. I’m so proud and honored to be a part of the Faces of Tomorrow team!

What does a day on mission look like? 

The days are long but the time flies because the experience is so amazing. We usually start surgery around 7am daily and finish surgery between 5-7pm depending on how the day goes. The recovery room and floor nurses work the latest, but everyone on the team comes to the missions ready to work hard since we only have a week to provide free surgeries.

Is mission work as dreamy and enriching as it sounds?  

Yes! However, it’s emotional because you can’t help everyone. It’s a balance between feeling good about the changes you can make and accepting the ones you can’t.

It’s amazing to change someone’s life drastically in just a few days!

What nurse qualities are essential for working a mission?

We have multiple roles on our teams so there are several opportunities.  We bring OR nurses, recovery nurses, floor nurses, and even nurse anesthetists.  The requirements are the same as they are for any licensed job in the United States.  You need current certifications in scope of practice that applies to your professional setting.  In order to work in foreign countries, we have to have our US licenses verified and approved by the foreign governments and ministries of health so its essential to have a team that is all legally qualified. 

I think being a team player and flexible is essential.  Ideally, its great to have team members that have traveled some and have experienced being outside of the United States.  The living and working situations along with the health of the patients can be shocking at times, however, having travel experience isn’t a requirement. It just makes the adjustment a little easier I think.

What practical advice would you give a nurse whose dream it is to go on a medical mission?

I would say research organizations that do work that interests you. Find out about their application process, requirements, and when and where they go on missions. If it feels like a good fit with your vision, then apply. Luckily there are tons of different organizations out there. No time like the present because once you do it you’ll be hooked for sure. The work is so rewarding and the need is great so if it interests you follow your dreams. No time like the present!

Thank you, Kristen!! It was so interesting hearing and sharing your story. You are such an inspiration and the true definition of a Mighty Nurse. You can find more information about Faces of Tomorrow on their website or Facebook. There is need everywhere in the world, even in our own cities. What can you as an individual do to be of service to others?

If you or anyone you know has an inspiring story to tell and would like to be featured, contact me at

“The dedicated enjoy supreme peace. Therefore, live only to serve.”

Sri Swami Satchidananda

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