Becoming the hands and feet of Christ A nursing student brings what he learned in India to serve in Grand Rapids

Becoming the hands and feet of Christ
Students on Calvin's "Rural Health in India" interim trip get to know the Indian culture by having henna art designs done on their hands and arms.

Ryan Visbeen ’15 was in his first semester at Calvin when his roommate came home with news that no freshman in college should hear.

He had a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would have to undergo treatment in between classes, varsity soccer practice and dorm activities.

“We were all like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s just not supposed to happen. ... It’s genetic, not preventable, but still, nobody expects things like that to happen,” Ryan said. 

His roommate eventually beat the lymphoma, but the experience fueled Ryan’s interest in health care. He thought about becoming a physician’s assistant, but that would take an additional two years of study after Calvin. He could become a nurse, though, and start caring for people in just four years so that’s what he decided to do.*

Even if nursing is my base occupation, I can go anywhere with it.

To India

So far, “anywhere” has meant traveling to some unexpected places with Calvin’s nursing program.

In January, he and 17 Calvin students traveled to rural India, where they visited the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, a World Health Organization model site. And though he’d been on missions trips in high school—including a medical service trip to Uganda— nothing could prepare him for what he experienced in India. When they arrived, the barrage of exotic sights, sounds and smells was what you might expect to find in a developing country.

“We got off the plane and we were packed into a little van that probably had 10 seats for 16 people. From there it was 10-hour drive [to our destination], and the traffic was crazy, with people everywhere—it was 2 a.m. and people were still out on the streets, socializing!” Ryan said. 

Two villages, one difference

The real surprises came when Ryan and his classmates traveled to two poor villages in rural western India.

In one village, houses were made of stone, with satellite dishes sitting on many of them. There was fresh water, gardens growing fruits and vegetables, and a school where most of the children from the village studied. But in the other village, houses were made of straw, with cows and other livestock living in them alongside people. There was a school but no teacher.

Thirty years ago, these two villages were equal to each other in terms of living standards, education and key health indicators like infant mortality rate. Ryan and his classmates were there to study exactly why today one of these villages is thriving and one of them is not. 

Knowledge is power

The thriving village has a person called a village health worker (VHW), trained at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project headquarters in nearby Jamkhed. This individual, typically a village woman, isn’t a nurse or a doctor. She’s trained in basic health practices and works with her neighbors to show them how to treat and prevent illnesses and health complications. Since the village health program began, infant mortality has decreased from 17.6 percent to 2.4 percent of all births—and that’s just one of the results.

The people in the village with the village health worker were filled with knowledge. They knew how to take care of themselves and their children, and they were ecstatic to show us what they knew.

Witnessing the powerful effects of health promotion in rural India made a strong impression on Ryan, one that would outlast jet lag and getting through the rest of his pre-nursing courses. 


Same lesson,  different adventure

Eight months later, Ryan climbed out of his car in a Grand Rapids neighborhood not quite as exotic as Jamkhed, India, but every bit as unknown. It was the first morning of his community-based nursing clinicals. It was set in an urban neighborhood where residents have complex health issues: poor nutrition, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental illness.

His task? Be the village health worker.

In India, he was there to observe. Back home in the United States, he is becoming what nursing professor Debra Bossenbroek says is the goal of Calvin’s nursing program: to be the “hands and feet of Christ” to patients in need.

His first real patient assignment is to meet with a resident and talk through the person’s health history. Through repeated appointments, Ryan will develop a relationship with the individual and connect him or her to needed health resources: an exercise plan, a doctor’s visit at the local health clinic or nutritious food from a church food pantry.

Just like the village health worker, Ryan is there to impart knowledge that the  patient can use to improve his or her quality of life. “The experience in the community has resonated with my experiences in India and reignited the desire to work in (a community) setting.

Ryan explores a new Grand Rapids neighborhood on his first day of clinicals.
Ryan explores a new Grand Rapids neighborhood on his first day of clinicals.

Bringing it all back home

When Ryan isn’t being the hands and feet of Christ in India or in a Grand Rapids neighborhood, he’s helping his fellow college students become more aware of health issues.

“We think we’re all infallible, and it’s not true,” he said.

Proof: his freshman roommate with cancer. More proof: “We all eat such high-fat and high-sodium foods. I was checking my roommates’ blood pressures and found that some were dangerously high. Not so high that they needed to go to the ER, but high enough that they needed to start watching what they eat.

As the campus health coordinator for the Calvin Student Nurses Association, it’s Ryan’s job to educate his fellow students about health problems that can creep up when you're busy with classes, work, studying and social activities.

“There are so many things that can be easily prevented—things like diabetes and hypertension—with simple knowledge,” Ryan said.

The heart of a village health worker

Prevention through knowledge was the most powerful lesson Ryan brought home from India.

“It all made me more conscious of how important it is to explain things to patients. [In U.S. hospitals], the doctor comes in, hands you your pills and says he’ll see you tomorrow. I learned it’s important to really talk to people ... and show them how to develop healthy lifestyles that can actually prevent illnesses,” Ryan said.

He may return to India or Uganda after earning his nursing degree, but more likely he’ll work in a hospital in his native New Jersey. But even in a U.S. hospital, his heart will be that of a village health worker: meeting people where they are, doing what he can to make them feel better and providing them with the knowledge they need to live healthy lives.

*Calvin’s nursing program requires application during a student’s sophomore year, but in the past three years, 90 to 100 percent of applicants have been accepted to the program. 

VERGE: fall 2013

First-Year Experience