Mother carries on late daughter’s legacy to help the poor in Dominican Republic


Eileen Specchio, a professor at the College of St. Elizabeth, traveled to the Dominican Republic last month to lead an enthusiastic team of nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students on a mission trip to care for the health needs of the island nation’s desperately poor people.

One of Specchio’s daughters, Emily, was way ahead of the team of 65 people, at least in spirit.

The people shouted, “Emily’s madre” (Emily’s mother)  said Specchio, director of St. Elizabeth’s undergraduate nursing program, who brought the team to run the San Miguel clinic of the Randolph-based Foundation for Peace organization, by helping patients manage chronic diseases and by promoting good health practices among the people.

There’s a reason for the wild reaction to Specchio and her team, who from Aug. 4 to 9, treated workers on sugar plantations like her younger daughter Emily, who had twice had done mission work in this poor area. In this place where living is primitive, she captured the hearts of the locals and they, in turn, also touched her heart. 

Sadly, Emily would never return as she died unexpectedly of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm at the age of 21.  Her death occurred on May 15, 2006, two days after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from the Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

“Kids ran up to me right away, exclaiming that Emily’s sister was back.  It was incredible,” Emily’s 26-year-old sister Kate, who went with their mother and aunt on last month’s trip, wrote in an Internet blog on a web site for a charity established in her memory, The Emily C. Specchio Foundation.

Over five days, the team that signed up for CSE’s new nursing serving leadership program treated about 3,000 thankful patients. Emily had asked her mother to accompany her on these trips, but she declined because she didn’t speak Spanish. Today, the professor has turned a mother’s unimaginable grief into assisting the world’s poor, in a sense extending her hands in place of her daughter’s compassionate hands that can no longer reach out.

Emily’s spirit was ahead of Specchio and Katie, a doctoral student in toxicology at Duke University, Durham, N.C., when they traveled to the Dominican Republic in August 2006.  They both were touched by a photo of Emily displayed in a local church. The faith community held a service for the beloved girl they called “Emily Special.”   Afterwards, they clamored to meet Specchio and Kate.

Specchio and Kate returned to the country in August with the team from CSE and from the School of Nursing at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. They ran clinics on the plantations, called “batays,” traveling to these isolated areas, where workers don’t get around to visit doctors, she said.

“They (team members) were shocked to see how needy the people are. The animals are malnourished. Children play in mud contaminated with feces. It was hot. There wasn’t any air conditioning,” Specchio said. “But everyone wanted to offer his or her skills to help. They wanted to give more,” she said.

The team set up primitive clinics by Western standards. They fashioned examination rooms from sheets. They used instruments not much more sophisticated than blood pressure cuffs. They also went out to visit homes, some which housed 17 people, Specchio said.

Team members assessed patients and distributed donated medications, including antibiotics, vitamins and aspirin. They referred serious cases to the Foundation for Peace.

The team also put together PowerPoint computer slide presentations on what Specchio called “basic stuff” such as hygiene and sanitation. They taught people how to cook meat and bury fecal matter. Members of the team, some of whom hailed from countries such as China and Haiti, delivered these presentations in English and Spanish. Some members even conversed in Creole, another local language, she said.

“To promote good health, they distributed health kits with items as soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste,” Specchio said.

“They (team members) offered hope to the Dominican people that there are people who care about them,” said Specchio, a parishioner of St. Lawrence the Martyr, Chester, N.J.

That caring came through the nursing service leadership program, which fits neatly with the Catholic university’s mission of service learning and social justice.  The trip replaces the college’s course on community nursing needed for a bachelor’s degree in nursing and also provides nurses “contact hour” credits they need for continuing education or for license renewal, she said.

Now Specchio looks to the future of the program. She hopes to create a blueprint for other nursing programs to replicate.  That way, steady streams of nursing teams could travel to Dominican Republic to provide continuous care to help patients manage chronic illnesses. Teams also could educate locals on critical health issues such as HIV transmission, domestic violence, chronic illnesses, record keeping and hygiene, she said.

One CSE nursing student energized by the trip, 29-year-old Jonathan Esposito said the primitive conditions there gave him the experience using hands-on “rudimentary” diagnostic techniques not used in the United States.

“We accomplished our goal to serve the people,” said Esposito who admitted being shocked by the impoverished conditions there.  “It was symbiotic relationship. We went down to provide aid, but we came back with the gratitude of the people,” he said.

Perhaps Emily was smiling down on the team, her mother and sister Kate, who wrote in her blog after the trip, “Being in the Dominican Republic makes me feel closer to Emily. It feels good to continue her legacy there and keep her dream alive.”

The original story can be found here

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