By Michelle Dang, RN
Have you had an experience that helped you realize you were part of something bigger and your purpose became crystal clear? I dont mean moments that make you think about your existence or the vast universe. I mean experiences that help you understand the true essence of being a nurse.
That moment came to me one afternoon when I was finishing my shift as a volunteer nurse at a low-cost vaccine clinic I had co-founded with colleagues. Due to the recent economic downturn, many other public-funded clinics in our Sacramento (Calif.) region closed their doors, leaving uninsured and underinsured families with limited options.
The clinic took a year to plan and implement, but once we opened our door, families came rushing in. To help in the purchasing of supplies, we decided to charge $10 per child for our immunization services regardless of the number of vaccines that a child needed and waived fees for families who couldnt afford it. To sustain the clinic, I and other nurses as well as student nurses worked at the clinic as volunteers.
On this particular afternoon, it was an extremely busy day at the clinic. I administered one vaccination after another while the families kept coming in. It was a few weeks before a new school year and children needed their vaccinations for school. I felt tired, borderline cranky and started to question whether I had the energy to continue volunteering. At this point, a friendly woman in her 40s came in. She was accompanied by her 14-year-old son who needed the Tdap vaccine.
After giving the adolescent his shot, I gave his mother the vaccine paperwork and told her about the cost of $10. She then proceeded to give me two $20 bills. I gave her back the money and explained that we only charged $10. The woman stopped me from giving back the money and stated, I want to give you the extra $30 so you can pay for the next customers who cant pay. I used to be on welfare and I know what you are doing here for people. When she saw the surprised look on my face, she smiled and said, I want to pay it forward. I didnt know what to say to her but to utter the words, Thank you.
The womans son was the last client that day. I made a mental note to use the money to pay for families who cant afford to pay. As I put away supplies and closed up the clinic, the agencys manager approached me about a woman and two children who just walked in and asked if I wouldnt mind seeing them. I was exhausted and was ready to tell them to come back another day. However, there was something in the managers face that told me I should see them so I said, Sure, send them back.
The mother approached me quietly holding her childrens hands and thanked me for seeing them. It was evident when the mother spoke that English was not her native language; however, she was able to communicate what she needed. She handed me her childrens immunization records and said they needed shots to return to school.
As I reviewed the records, I couldnt help but notice the disheveled appearance of her children. I asked the mother how she found us and where the children went to school.
The mother explained that a staff member at the womans crisis shelter told her about the clinic. She and her children had been staying at the shelter after she left her husband who had been abusing her. The shelter staff found her housing in a nearby apartment complex and the children would be attending a new school.
After I finished giving the children their vaccinations, the mother looked at me apologetically and said, Im sorry, I dont have money to pay today. Can I pay you another time? I smiled at her and said, Its not necessary. Someone already paid for you.
I left the clinic that day with a sense of wonder. How often do these serendipitous moments happen? Do things really happen for a reason? Thoughts of the woman who wanted to pay for people she didnt know and the courage of the mother who left her abusive husband made me feel like I was part of a larger purpose that day, like I was part of an unseen movement where people were quietly making the world a better place and that our collective actions were connected in unexplained and fantastic ways.
I was proud to be a nurse that day as it permitted me to be part of this wonderful experience. Today, I continue to volunteer in my community and pay it forward.
Michelle Dang, PhD, RN, is an associate professor in the school of nursing at California State University, Sacramento. She also serves as a volunteer board member for My Sister’s House, a nonprofit that supports women and children impacted by domestic violence and human trafficking.