As a part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) awardees Sister Alicia Vacas Moro of Spain and Ana Rosario Contreras of Venezuela spoke with the President of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) on April 14 about organizing and solutions to make healthcare more equitable and accessible.
The IVLP is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. Through discussions with their counterparts in the United States, current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields share their perspectives on issues of mutual interest and cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts. IVLP meetings reflect the participants’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States.
Katie Murphy, an ICU nurse of 40 years and the president of the MNA, shared the recent successes of the association. These include demanding additional personal protective equipment as the COVID-19 pandemic began last year and lobbying efforts targeted at creating statutes that impose harsher punishments on patients who attack nurses.
“It is important that we establish and nurture relationships with policy makers,” Murphy explained. “We want them to take our research and proposals seriously and create legislation that reflects our demands.”
After hearing Murphy’s success with the MNA, Contreras shared challenges she experienced as an advocate for healthcare access in Venezuela in her position as president of the Caracas Nurses’ Association. “Demanding one’s rights can result in threats, imprisonment, and termination from their job,” Contreras stated, “But I know they will not silence my voice… I know that I am on the right side of history.”
Sister Alicia has been a long-serving volunteer in the Middle East, where she has assisted refugees and asylum seekers in accessing medical care. She spoke about the reality of collaborating with other organizations in order to have a more equitable health care system. “We use our convent as a neutral zone for organizations and medical professionals to share information,” Sister Alicia shared. “It is through these non-political, fact finding missions that I have seen the most progress.”
Each of these women shared stories and lessons learned through their involvement in creating a more equitable healthcare system within their communities, states, and countries. While the nuances of the specific challenges are different in Massachusetts, Venezuela, and the Middle East, common themes appeared as to the motivation of these healthcare professionals to spend time, and risk so much, to seek change.
The motivations of these three inspiring women were best stated by Contreras when she was explaining why she is so passionate about her work: “We believe that life is an inalienable right and healthcare is something we must defend in the middle of a pandemic… who better to defend that right than nurses?”