April 26, 2010

Profile: Public health nurse is citizen of the world

Linda Spencer is a clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing.

“I have always been passionate about caring for those most in need — whether it be responding to a national disaster or helping other countries develop a nursing infrastructure — I like to work at the grassroots level to improve people’s lives,” says Linda Spencer, clinical associate professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.  

In the 35 years Spencer has worked as a public health nurse, she has crisscrossed the globe to serve vulnerable populations. Spencer has traveled to Pakistan, India, Russia, Nigeria, Liberia, Georgia and the Ivory Coast to provide critical nursing care and training. Each country she’s visited has had a unique mission.

For example, she trained Kurdish nurses in Iraq after the first Gulf War while they were rebuilding their health care system. Spencer led a project in India that was focused on early recognition of leprosy, where she was able to see Mother Teresa in action. She even lived on an elephant preserve in Zambia, where she trained health care workers on techniques to reduce infant mortality.

“Being a public health nurse has given me the opportunity to touch so many lives, especially in third world countries,” Spencer says. “Working in these challenging, low-resource environments has resulted in some of the most rewarding experiences in my career.”

Fifteen years ago, Spencer — who is also a retired U.S. Army Nurse Corps colonel — began taking on new challenges as a disaster response nurse for the American Red Cross. In this role, she was part of a first responder team for hurricanes, tornados, floods and terrorist attacks. On April 19, 1995, she deployed to the scene of America’s first domestic terrorist attack — the Oklahoma City Bombing — which claimed the lives of 168 people.

“The bombing was a shock to this heartland state and I took on one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever had in my career,” Spencer says. “I served as a nurse on the Red Cross condolence team. I visited the homes of victims and offered a wide variety services to grieving families. It was tough to make those visits, but I knew we had something important to offer them.”

Spencer also helped mobilize volunteers to support Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, Haitian evacuees who arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. 

Spencer has volunteered with the American Red Cross for nearly 20 years, and her efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2002, she received the Florence Nightingale Medal — the highest honor bestowed upon a nurse by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. When Spencer received the Nightingale Medal, she received a touching letter from Max Cleland, a former Georgia senator, Vietnam War hero, and Emory alumnus. In his letter, Cleland congratulated Spencer and told her that disaster nurses like her do more than give care, they are also “givers of hope.”

After giving hope to populations across the world as a public health nurse for nearly three decades, Spencer is now the coordinator of the Public Health Nursing Leadership Program, which she recommends for any nurse who wants to work overseas.

“Nursing interventions differ from country to country, but public health nursing is the same anywhere in the world,” says Spencer. “I have found my work in the United States and around the world to be very fulfilling. I’m traveling less, but I’m trying to put my energy into preparing the next generation of nurses to work in public health.”

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