By Laura Raines, Pulse editor
When Laura Hurt became a nurse in 1969, she’d never even heard of Uzbekistan or Georgia, both former republics of the Soviet Union. Little did she know how integral those countries would become to her life.
This fall, Hurt, director of nursing operations at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, will serve as co-principal investigator for an almost $2 million grant to develop nurses in the nation of Georgia.
It won’t be the first time her itinerary reads from Georgia to Georgia.
“I was working as chief medical-surgical nurse at Grady [Memorial] Hospital in 1991 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed to help former U.S.S.R. countries like Georgia and Uzbekistan develop their democracies,” said Hurt, BSN, MHA, RN, NEA, BC.
Dr. Kenneth Walker, of the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, had laid the groundwork for health care reform there and recruited Hurt for the team. It was a daunting task.
“Georgia had to build itself from the ground up,” Hurt said. “It went from a Communist country, where housing, utilities and health care were all owned and operated by the government, to a representative democracy. The government had little money and had to develop its own resources.”
When a legislator from Georgia visited Grady to learn how the hospital operated and discovered that the hospital had a budget of $4 million, she burst into tears.
“That was her country’s entire budget,” Hurt said.
Hurt realized then what an enormous challenge the United States had taken on.
While working at Grady, Hurt traveled overseas to Georgia four to six times a year on USAID grants between 1992 and 2005. Although the grants paid for travel expenses and Hurt’s Grady salary, “it wasn’t easy to leave my family for two weeks and live in a place where you don’t understand the language, can’t drink the water, the bathroom is a hole in the ground and it’s not always safe,” she said.
While staying in a hotel room in Tbilisi in 1992, Hurt heard what she thought was thunder. But it was the sound of bombs exploding during the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, a warring of ethnic factions within the country.
“We found out when a reporter asked to use our phone,” Hurt said.
Hurt and her team realized that they had to pack their bags and get out of the country.
“Russia was shooting down domestic planes because they had been used by the military. We went another route and prayed we wouldn’t get shot down,” Hurt said.
Now Hurt knows to have an emergency safe house in which to hide and to pack enough nonperishable food to last several days when she travels to Georgia.
“Boy, oh boy, did working there increase my faith,” she said.
More than once, Hurt has told herself she’d never go back, but she has always returned.
“After awhile, you have no fear because you know that people are depending on you and what you can give,” she said. “I had given my talent, time and money in my country, and using them somewhere else felt so good.”
In getting to know the Georgian people, Hurt has come to the conclusion that “all of us really want the same thing. We want our children to have a better way of life. I feel a responsibility to help the people in Georgia achieve that.”
Over the years, Hurt helped develop the first women’s primary health care center in Kutaisi, established the first nurse position in the ministry of health in Georgia, organized the first Georgian Nursing Association, developed the first emergency medicine model and introduced the first fully equipped EMS mobile units in Uzbekistan.
When the American team first went to Georgia, the average life span in the country was 20 years lower than life expectancy in the United States, Hurt said.
“Under the Communists, there had been no diagnostic screening, so women were presenting with Stage 4 breast and cervical cancers and [were] dying,” she said. “After we introduced Pap smears and mammograms, those deaths went down over a five-year period.”
Her team also was alarmed by the startling number of children who were hit by cars in Georgia.
“The kids had no place to play but the streets, so we worked with their government to build fenced playgrounds, and the number of deaths decreased. That really did my heart good,” she said.
The Americans also taught Georgia government officials how to add fluoride to water and iodine to salt, as well as to enact new child-protection laws.
“I know we have made a difference. The data showed that we saved lives,” Hurt said. “When you travel, good things happen. Barriers get broken down. They learn from you and you learn from them. When you give, you always reap.”
Hurt has learned to appreciate the rich history and culture of the country.
“Almost everyone speaks three or four languages, loves to read and does something artistic — sings, dances or plays an instrument,” she said.
When Hurt is asked to make a toast at gatherings in the overseas Georgia, she always says the same thing. “I tell them that none of us know the future. I toast to the friendship that we have developed and ask that they tell the story of our working together to their children. Who knows, I tell them, in 40, 50 or 60 years they may have to help us.”
Putting the grant to work
Hurt, who helped write the USAID grant to target nursing in former Soviet Georgia, and Walker will serve as co-principal investigators in the effort. During a two-year period, Atlanta nurses and other professionals will run a nursing learning center to teach practical skills to more than 1,600 nurses and local trainers. They will build a computer-simulation lab and a model, state-of-the-art hospital unit with a Tbilisi hospital.
“We know this is something the Georgian government wants and needs,” Hurt said. “Most nurses there function more as nursing assistants. Doctors stay at the bedside.”
Training nurses to function according to Western models will allow doctors to set up private practices and conduct research.
“It’s a major undertaking, but the country is ready,” Hurt said, “and we’ll be able to build on past relationships.”
Hurt has learned many lessons from her international work.
“If you don’t speak the language and want people to believe what you tell them, leadership has to be participatory and transparent,” she said. “You have to develop trust.”