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From the spring of Lourdes: Georgetown nursing students impacted by service, faith

Dr. Edilma Yearwood (far left) and Dr. Sarah Vittone (far right), both professors at the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, stand with 10 nursing students in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Lourdes, France, where they spent the week as volunteers in the baths. (Photo courtesy: Georgetown University)

When Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies students Nicole Chen and Rebecca Kazor traveled to Lourdes, France with Loyola University Chicago nursing students last year, they did not anticipate the impact the trip would have on their future nursing careers.

One year later, Chen and Kazor, both rising seniors, led a group of eight other Georgetown nursing students on a similar pilgrimage to Lourdes as volunteers in the baths, where pilgrims from throughout the world seek healing in the waters of the spring that Our Lady revealed to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

After her first visit, Chen said the experience was amazing and transformative. “It was really special and an emotional experience, to be able to serve them,” Chen said. “Going back this year, everything came back in an instant. It felt like second nature to be there and pray with them again.”

Accompanied by two Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies faculty members, Dr. Edilma Yearwood and Dr. Sarah Vittone, as well as the director of Ignatian Programs at Georgetown, Jesuit Father Jerry Hayes, the group participated in Lourdes devotions such as a rosary procession, Eucharistic procession, Stations of the Cross, and Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. The spiritual nurturing of the pilgrims and the volunteers was indescribable. 

“I’m still praying with grace from what we experienced,” Father Hayes said. 

The Georgetown group at a candlelight procession in Lourdes. (Photo courtesy: Georgetown University) 

Yearwood said that while many in their group came from a variety of beliefs, their individual spirituality was powerful. “One of the things we have been really focusing on in nursing currently is how as caretakers we take care of ourselves, taking care of ourselves in our own spirituality,” she said. 

The students’ experiences in the classroom as nursing students carried into their duties as volunteers in Lourdes: helping pilgrims cover themselves and enter into the baths, but beyond that, also inviting them into prayer and reflection. 

“You saw people with very expensive shoes coming in, and some people who were in very tattered clothes, but in the moment of being in the water, in the moment of praying to Mary and St. Bernadette, everyone was equal,” Vittone said. “There was that moment of genuineness.” 

Vittone continued that the students’ skill set as nursing students set them apart from other volunteers. “Being able to quickly identify a person who might have more of a need than another person, and be sensitive to the look in the eye that indicated a fear or suffering, and how to address that quickly was probably something our students had ahead of some novices,” she said. 

Throughout the trip, the students encountered pilgrims with different backgrounds of faith and nationality, revealing the power of the universal church. Kazor said that despite language barriers, they still cultivated community and relationship between the volunteers and the pilgrims. 

“It was one of the first times when I knew exactly what someone was saying to me, even though I did not know a single word they were saying…,” she said. “Being able to be there and be present with them through that experience was really beautiful. It was a very vulnerable space for them, and people came there for all different types of healing. But I felt like I witnessed a lot of spiritual healing, for myself as well.”

Vittone was impressed by the detailed preparations the staff at Lourdes provided the volunteers. Community building activities and a special Mass “really focused our experience,” she said.

“I think that echoes a good bit of what I’m bringing back to the students,” she said. “Being prepared in yourself, knowing who you are, being self aware and having those reflections, helps you make relationships with your patients, helps you be more open to assessing and addressing  their needs.

“And I think that’s something we really need to work on as our new professionals are coming into a working world,” Vittone continued. “We want them to thrive and be successful, and this is the next generation of nurses to carry this forward.”

The trip did not come without preparation, the students met numerous times throughout the semester to discuss the trip, learn about Lourdes, and understand what their role would be as volunteers. “They (Chen and Kazor) made it so easy for us,” Father Hayes said. “We were pilgrims with the students...These two young ladies made our trip so much richer for us.” 

Both students and faculty expressed that the pilgrimage has shaped the way they see their professions.

“Going into the experience the first year, spirituality wasn’t a part of my goals as a nurse really,” Chen said. “...It has really informed the way that I go through clinicals through nursing school...It’s the presence of being with a patient, just taking extra time to be with them and ask them how they’re doing. It’s very tangibly a part of how I practice nursing now.”

Vittone said showing a nursing student how to be present in times of suffering is “all that there is.” 

“You hear stories of someone who says, ‘It was the nurse that touched me.’ It’s those 90 seconds that made such a powerful difference,” Vittone said. “Those are the things to pass on to this generation of students. I hear Nicole and Rebecca talk about what they’re bringing back -- that makes it worth it.”

Yearwood said that the emphasis on personal connection in Lourdes has inspired her to establish stronger connections with her students. 

“After last year, I was able to reflect a lot more on my role as a faculty member and educator with students, and I think I bring that with me now,” Yearwood said. “It’s more about the connection, and the people connection is so much more important. I find myself paying a lot more attention to the faces in front of me in the classroom, which to me is important.” 

Kazor said that beyond her aspirations and goals within nursing, the trip impacted her faith. 

“I also have goals and wants outside of nursing, in regards to my faith and helping me understand that...I also need to take care of myself and my spiritual side and make time for God in my daily life and helping me refocus that again because that’s also equally important, if not more, to me,” she said.

In addition to traveling to Lourdes, the Georgetown students traveled to Loyola, Spain, the birthplace of St. Ignatius, where Father Hayes celebrated Mass in the Chapel of Conversion.