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Teresa Davidson, University of Iowa Children's Hospital

  Teresa Davidson
Teresa Davidson, nurse in the University of Iowa Children's Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Teresa Davidson was 8 years old when her church held a revival week in her hometown of Clarion, Iowa. Two missionaries, a husband and wife, stayed at her home. The wife was a nurse, and Teresa was blown away by everything that she was doing. Davidson knew she wanted to be a nurse, too.

Davidson earned her nurse practitioner’s license from the University of Missouri and has been working in the University of Iowa Children's Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) since 1998. She loves being able to work with these young patients, although she wishes she could remove the worries of the patients’ parents during these stressful times.

Davidson’s work as a nurse here at Iowa has brought things full circle, spurring a career in medical missionary work, which has taken her to Latin America and Africa. Davidson spoke with fyi about what drives her missionary work, her work in the neonatal intensive care unit, and the role her family plays in the medical missions.

What made you decide to come to The University of Iowa?

I was working towards my nurse practitioner’s license at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and I came across Iowa when I was doing a research paper. I grew up in Iowa but I had no idea how much research was going on here. I was struck by the facility and all the people involved.

What is the best part about working in the NICU?

We have this wonderful facility, a great staff, and of course I get to work with babies. There are a lot of cool things going on in the unit, like ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is a process of oxygenating the blood outside the body of patients born with lung or heart defects. This machine literally serves as their heart for 15 or 20 minutes before pumping freshly oxygenated blood back into the body.

Because this is a research facility we can do a lot of things that can’t be done elsewhere. Everyone’s so involved here and I work with the most talented, inspirational, and beautiful people there can be. It’s a pleasure to work with them.

How did you get into medical missionary work?

I was at a faith-based gathering in Chicago over a weekend in 2000. I got to know a group of men from South Africa—they told me the difficulties they faced back home with the HIV/AIDS crisis. At the end of the three days they joked that I should come back with them and do missionary work. I told them that they shouldn’t joke about it, because I would make the trip. Right after, I went home to my husband and told him, “We’ve got to go to Africa.”

A little later I was in contact with my new friends and they set up a "vision trip" for us—a way for us to see firsthand what was happening there. We covered a lot of ground in South Africa, talking to people while touring around in this little Jeep. After that, I knew I had to come back and help.

What are some of the challenges of missionary work in Africa?

My friends told me Africa wasn’t for the weak—they were right. It’s tough just getting there. Over the years we’ve developed a method for getting supplies to the right places. If we were to declare everything we brought there would be so many fees that we couldn’t pay. After bribes and distance, the load gets whittled down some. If we’re going to have to pay a bribe I want to make sure it’s not money, so I’ve settled on bringing things like pocketknives and other supplies—often people are happier with these things.

Once we get to the villages where we work, the realities are grim. I remember that in our first trip to Zambia we saw how crowded the houses were. You could find 15, 20 people living in the same small room. Things weren’t much better in the hospitals—in recent trips, lack of electricity and clean water still sit atop a long list of deficiencies.

Is it safe to presume your job at University of Iowa Children's Hospital serves you well in your missionary work?

My experience in a pediatric cardio unit gave me an edge, but in reality you’re up against a lot more than you can plan for. This last year there was one baby we almost lost. After the delivery we didn’t have blankets or heat. We had no oxygen, sugar, or fresh water, and it took six hours and nine team members to track these things down.

Add to these struggles the HIV/AIDS crisis and political strife, and it gets even tougher. In Africa, 6,500 people a day are lost to AIDS. We can provide supplies and basic care, and we can train the next generation in methods of basic care, but by the time we make it back the next year people simply disappear. We train more people, but it’s hard to keep up.

What are you doing when you’re not working in the NICU or leading missionary trips abroad?

My husband and our six children are involved in this too—it’s a family affair. If we’re not leading missionary trips, we’re planning for them. Every day the nurses here at the NICU load me up with leftover supplies or they bring me donations. It adds up quickly. I’ll carry big bags of stuff on the Cambus out to my car. At home it’s common practice for the kids to help with organization. My daughter Micaiah sorts while she watches TV. We’ve taken on so much stuff, my husband had to build extra storage space outside for all the medical supplies and clothes.

What’s the driving force behind the work you do?

It’s because of my faith that I do this. Sometimes we’ll be on trips and we’ll find that people travel miles even though they don’t have any symptoms. They simply want to hear about our faith. When they find out that people care about them it makes such a difference. Instead of sending money, it’s crucial to show support. I think of the work we do not as a handout, but a hand-up.

by Steve Cain

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