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This woman is spending her retirement years helping at health clinics in Tucson, Uganda

This woman is spending her retirement years helping at health clinics in Tucson, Uganda

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Nurse practitioner Dana Smith examines a patient at Clinica Amistad in Tucson. “You get to spend 20-30 minutes with each patient,” she says. “Treatment begins with listening.”

The website of Clínica Amistad, a free clinic on Tucson’s south side, includes a video introducing volunteers who work there — students, nurses, physician assistants, doctors, laypeople, a beloved priest. They talk about friendships formed in the clinic, and community.

“People come here to help people,” comments a young nursing student, “and that says everything about those who volunteer here.”

One of those volunteers is Dana Smith — retired nurse practitioner, health-care trainer and artist.

Mom and baby javelina: Wait until you see the little cutie

Recently, on a patio in her Tucson Mountains home, surrounded by saguaros and some of her colorful, ceramic human/animal (at times dinosaur) hybrid sculptures, the 64-year-old Smith talked about giving back.

“It’s wonderful to be involved in your community, and to connect with people who feel the same,” Smith says.

That impulse — plus her fondness for dinosaurs and fossils and a life philosophy — she attributes to her father, a civic-minded museum director. Retired after 20 years at St. Elizabeth of Hungary health clinic, Smith now trains medical providers in Uganda, helped establish a profitable refugee sewing project in Tucson and treats patients at Clínica Amistad.

The Ugandan Rotarians for Family Health and AIDS Prevention project, opened in 2013 by Green Valley Rotarian Dr. Phil Silvers, provides medications and training for Ugandan health caregivers in nationwide free clinics. Smith has been on his team since its inception, and it presented her with a gratifying challenge.

During the initial trip to train nurses, medics, and midwives, she befriended a midwife who worked in a poor rural area. Back in the U.S., in a letter exchange, Smith inquired whether there was something she could offer the midwife to help her practice.

“I thought books,” she says. “A stethoscope. But no! An ultrasound machine,” she laughs.

Not only was she thousands of miles away and ultrasounds were expensive, but one would probably be stolen or confiscated before it reached its destination. In the end, they found funding for 10 portable ultrasound machines, which she wrangled from a Chinese manufacturer, and had successfully delivered to Uganda labeled “veterinary equipment.”

Nurse midwives in Uganda now have 10 portable ultrasound machines after Dana Smith helped find funding for them. Smith, a retired nurse practitioner, health-care trainer and artist, has been with Ugandan Rotarians for Family Health and AIDS Prevention project since its inception.

“We immediately began hearing good news,” she says. “One of the nurse midwives was attending a young patient who was bleeding and accusing the midwife of witchcraft. The ultrasound machine showed a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. Wow!”

Word got out, more women attended their regular appointments, and “the more the patients, the more they were able to do group teaching.” Eventually, 30 midwives were trained on the equipment.

“Dana is a gifted trainer,” Silvers says.

She managed to make even a difficult course involving physics popular. When she discovered that many of her trainees couldn’t identify the organs of the female reproductive system, she bought them wall posters. She arranged a hospital field trip for trainees to learn to evaluate and adjust caregivers’ interaction with patients.

“She has done so much for health care in Uganda,” Silvers says. “She has done even more for the image of the United States and Rotary.”

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the African outreach last year, but it did provide a local project: mask making. After her years at St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Smith was familiar with the refugee community in Tucson. Having already participated in a sewing project for refugee women, when the pandemic hit, she retooled and taught the refugees to sew protective masks. She and her group provided the materials and sewing machines, and paid them for their production.

Educator and community volunteer Cheryl Lockhart, who joined her friend in the sewing project, says Smith succeeds because she is authentic, unpretentious, and deft at overcoming cultural and language differences.

“It always amazed me how much she knew,” writes Lockhart, “and how they confided in her. She seemed to know everything about every woman, including where they lived (she made home visits), how they got to the center, and other details (whose son was in jail; whose daughters loved school).”

Dana Smith helps Mwamini Erasto, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, learn to thread a sewing machine as she takes her first sewing lesson at the Tucson Refugee Women Sewing Project at Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.

That ability to connect carries through to health care at Clínica Amistad.

The mission at Clínica Amistad — established in 2003 in the El Pueblo Neighborhood to serve Tucson’s uninsured, low-income community — suits Smith’s predilection for personal engagement.

“You get to spend 20-30 minutes with each patient,” she says, allowing her to identify underlying problems. “Treatment begins with listening.”

And COVID-19 has presented some new ways of listening.

She’s seeing more cases of undiagnosed depression these days. When a patient came in complaining of stomach pain, headache and sleep problems, and tests revealed no physical causes, Smith tried a different, indirect tack.

“Some people,” she told the woman, “when they experience symptoms like these, are actually depressed. Do you feel this happening to you?” And the woman broke down. “I’m afraid,” she admitted. “I’m so afraid of dying.”

So Smith’s treatment addressed the fear.

Back at the conversation on her patio, she mused about her life as a volunteer.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I have good friends” who have helped her take advantage of opportunities. Like the folks in the Clínica Amistad video, Dana Smith is part of a community that serves the community.

And her other retirement activity, oil painting and ceramic sculpture, by the way? Inspired. Also whimsically mischievous. Picture an angelic child cradling a javelina, a cloned-sheep Dolly with a human face, Triceratops Madonna and Child; a pearls-adorned goat cheating at Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Christine Wald-Hopkins, a former educator and occasional essayist, has long been a book critic for national, regional and local newspapers. She now writes Southern Arizona Authors with a colleague.


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