Nursing's Community Health in Panama

A CLOSER LOOK: USF College of Nursing’s Community Health in Panama

Balboa, Panama. The USF College of Nursing exchange program with the University of Panama is now in its third year. To date, three delegations of USF nursing students, nearly 45 in total, have participated in the program. Traveling to Panama during the summer months, our students, faculty and/or instructor are hosted by various representatives of the University of Panama during their stay. The focus: Community Health.

The “home base” for USF nursing students there is the Hostal Amador Familiar in Balboa, a neighborhood near the Panama Canal which was formerly controlled by and home to U.S. military forces operating the famed canal. During students’ month long stay in Panama, they’re accompanied by faculty members from the Escuela de Enfermeria , Universidad de Panama,– the University of Panama’s Nursing School.

Learning Community Health in Traditional & Non-traditional Ways…
USF students experience community health education in a variety of settings – from pediatric, maternity and mental health hospitals; to the mountain villages of Panama’s native Indian tribes, as well as the more traditional settings at Panama’s university and its National Nurses Association.

This year’s group of 15 USF nursing students was led by Assistant Professor Versie Johnson-Mallard, ARNP, PhD; and Instructor Debra Gottel, MHS, BSN.

From L to R: Instructor Debra Gottel and Assistant Professor Versie Johnson-Mallard.

For Johnson-Mallard and Gottel, the course abroad is no vacation. The day long excursions and activities end with “class” in the hostal’s kitchen. Surrounded by pots & pans, ripe bananas, and table-top salt & pepper shakers, the assistant professor and instructor go over lessons on a variety of subjects. On any given night, the discussion centers on topics like the care of vulnerable populations, communicable diseases and immunizations, school health, community mental health, the role of the public health nurse, making community assessments and referrals, just to name a few.

“The desire for more was infectious,” says Johnson-Mallard. “The eagerness spread among the students, even after a long day, they wanted to talk and attempt to understand. They wanted to hear from other students, their thoughts and experiences. By the end, they were completing each others sentences with wide eyes and eager faces.”

“Sharing this experience with the students has been a wonderful opportunity for me as an instructor,” says Gottel. “I have seen the students enthusiastically and competently engage in activities that challenged them in many ways. They left Florida with trepidation and returned feeling confident – confident in their abilities to practice beginning nursing, communicate with people who did not speak their language, navigate new surroundings, make friends and think in new ways.”

The group of students consisted of 14 females and one male, all in their senior year. They’re names are Lindsay Betchel, Caitlin Brock, Tara Casimir, Tania Cruickshank, Christine Doherty, Jessica Dorey, Alexandra Henry, Shadae Llewelyn, Jessica Meerbott, Jason Merry, Lydia Pendino, Cristina Penzabene, Courtney Rice, Melissa Skrzypek and Erin Smith.


From L to R: Sandra Cadena, PhD, ARNP, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Director of Global Health, USF College of Nursing; Student Tara Casimir and Dean Patricia Burns, USF College of Nursing.

Educational Program Bearing Fruit…
Sandra Cadena, PhD, ARNP, is the College of Nursing’s Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Director of Global Health. Traveling with students in prior years, she describes the program as one that bears fruit – many and varied, all equally important. “From an educator’s perspective, it’s interesting to watch the growing pride our students feel for their profession. They can make an incredible difference in people’s lives, no matter what corner of the world they choose to nurse in,” says Dr. Cadena. “It also heightens their sensitivity to cultural diversity. I think the immersion can increase a student’s awareness of his/her own cultural identity and, in turn, helps make them more sensitive to a growing culturally diverse patient population in our own country.”

Cadena with delegation of USF nursing students in Panama during Summer 2007.

A First for Dean of Nursing…
A first since the launch of the exchange program, this June, USF students were joined in Panama by Patricia Burns, PhD, RN, FAAN, Senior Associate Vice President of USF Health and Dean of the College of Nursing. Dean Burns visited with Bulls in Panama for the first time and traveled to the City of Knowledge, as well, where the USF Health International Foundation inaugurated its offices there on June 2. Nursing students, already in country since May 19th, joined Dean Burns during the foundation ceremony. Their excitement and school pride shining bright on an important night for USF and the future of its exchange programs in Panama.

Group photo w/USF College of Nursing delegation at the City of Knowledge, Panama during June 2, 2008 inaugural of USF Health International Foundation.

Students weren’t shy about sharing their opinions with the dean about Panama’s health disparities, medical protocols, infection control and more. It’s music to her ears. Dean Burns happily detecting students’ enthusiasm and passion for the nursing profession.

“This experience for our nursing students is invalueable because it gives them the opportunity to see a culturally different community health model in a foreign country,” says Dean Patricia Burns, USF College of Nursing. “The students present their experiences to their fellow classmates upon returning to USF, providing a vicarious, cultural nursing experience for all of our nursing students to learn from and enjoy.”

“I feel that the students gained an appreciation for cultural diversity in health care and a sincere appreciation for procedure and policy differences,” says Johnson-Mallard. “They spoke of noting appreciation by the people for their professional knowledge & skills and how well, comparatively, they are compensated and appreciated for their profession.”

“I have always been impressed with the students at the College of Nursing,” says Gottel, now home from Panama. “…but I now have an even greater respect for the dedication and competence that these young adults bring to the profession of nursing. It certainly was a privilege for me to be able to share this experience with such a capable group of students!” says Gottel.

Story by Lissette Campos, USF Health Communications


USF College of Nursing group outside Hostal Amador Familiar in Balboa, Panama.

From L to R: Nurse Nivia Gall, Chief Nurse of Surgery at Santo Tomas Maternity Hospital, and USF nursing student Tania Cruickshank, who is part of the college’s leadership team in student council.

At center, Dean Burns and Dr. Cadena join this year’s nursing delegation in Panama during a visit together to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal.

From L to R: USF nursing students Christine Doherty, Cristina Penzabene and Alexandra Henry.

From L to R: Annette Graig, RN, President of National Nurses Association of Panama and Dr. Johnson-Mallard, USF College of Nursing.

Student leaders of the USF College of Nursing’s Student Council on their visit to the National Nurses Association of Panama. located in the nation’s capitol. Front Row from L to R: USF student Caitlin Brock (kneeling) and association President Annette Graig (sitting down) Standing from L to R: USF students Tania Cruickshank, Melissa Skrypek Cristina Penzabene, Christine Doherty and Jessica Dorey.

From L to R: Student Jessica Meerbott and Dean Patricia Burns ‘Kodak’ moment during the June 2 inaugural event for the USF Health International Foundation.