Embracing a New Path: Nurse Leader Pepper Card’s Passion for Service
By Carisa Brewster
Travel nurse Pepper Card had no idea that a random conversation with a medical rep about a vacation suggestion would change her life forever.
It led to her first mission trip to Mali in 2008 with Medical Missions Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Kansas City that sends doctors and nurses to underserved communities worldwide. Subsequent trips to Uganda, Guatemala, and Romania followed. Her primary job on these missions was as the coordinator for the operating room.
“I fell in love with service, and I’ve gained so much,” Card said. “My life has segued to this whole other route.”
There was one complication: she had a full-time job as an OR manager at the University of Utah. She would use vacation time to go on missions, but around 2013 she had an epiphany. Various mentors helped prepare her for a leadership role, but she still struggled to transition from being a staff person to a leader.
“I kind of felt out of touch about how to be a good manager,” Card said. “I also had a health scare. I’m getting stressed out. I realized that life was getting short, and I really wanted to be around the people I had befriended in Kansas City.”
One of her best friends (someone she met on one of her Uganda missions) told her that she started travel nursing and loved it. She knew what she had to do.
“I decided to travel nurse because it enabled me to take time off to do a couple of mission trips a year and not have to worry about vacation time,” Card said. “I can still maintain a living. I’ve learned to simplify; I don’t need a lot of things.”
Card got her first travel gig in—you guessed it—Kansas City. However, she stayed longer than she intended and said she “got too comfortable.” In 2016, she officially became a full-time travel nurse.
Behind the Scenes at Medical Missions Foundation
Card met Mark Shields, Medical Missions current board president, on one of her trips to Romania. Shields is an IT professional who has worked at Oracle Cerner, a supplier of health information technology services (Oracle recently purchased Cerner), for 30 years. He became involved with Medical Missions in 2003 when he went on a mission trip to Romania through Cerner. He is the mission chair and team lead, liaising between mission coordinators and the board. He handles logistics while on trips, ensuring everyone is where they need to be and that supplies get to the right places.
“Even though I don’t have a medical background, I’ve always wanted to do this kind of service work,” Shields said.
When the COVID pandemic hit, missions were paused for almost two years. Except for organizations like Doctors Without Borders, who were on the frontlines, smaller groups were grounded.
“This caused fundraising issues because it’s hard to ask for money when we’re not traveling. So, we kept the lights on and sent out information saying, ‘We’re coming back. This is not the end.’ That helped us jump right back in when things started opening back up in 2021,” Shields said.
Their first trip back to Uganda in 2021 had many requirements and health protocols, such as COVID boosters. Pre-COVID, they were free to move about as they pleased, but this time they were restricted from going to certain places. Initially, they planned to return in 2020, but at that time, testing was necessary to enter and leave the country (which was the case for all countries).
“We were concerned about someone testing positive. I could stay by myself and be comfortable, but we can’t leave someone behind if they’re new to the group. It could be a month. So, we waited until 2021,” Shields said. “Now, we’re back to 4-5 mission trips a year.”
Learning to be Adaptable and Resourceful
Card has learned a few important lessons since joining Medical Missions. One: how to be creative in the face of not having the latest technology at her fingertips.
“Once, I was working with a urologist who does cystoscopies, but you can’t buy the bags of 3-liter fluid like we’re used to. Our solution was to use Coleman camp shower bags. We already have the glycine we brought and a big water cooler. We mix the glycine and pour it into the camp shower bags, and we can do both cystoscopies and prostate resections. And it works,” Card said.
Second, she realizes not everyone can do this work.
“It’s a challenge to step away from what you think is correct,” Card says. “I’ve seen a couple of people struggle and not come back because it’s just not their cup of tea, which is fine. I have been humbled; I learned to be more patient and open-minded. In 2017, I realized that maybe I was being that White person doing voluntourism. I didn’t fully understand the collaboration that needed to take place for sustainability. I decided to really get to know my friends and their culture and work with people and not assume they don’t know something.”
Shields says the next trip to Uganda is in September, and they are planning a trip to India in 2024. They are having a small fundraiser (golf tournament) in October, but their primary fundraiser is Art for the Children, which will happen in the spring of 2024. Previously a formal event, Shields said they are loosening things up so more people can afford to go.
“It allows us to get the volunteers back together to relax and debrief. Most of our team is in Kansas City, but about 10-12 people are coming from all over the United States and Canada,” Shields said. “I’m in awe of people like Pepper who do the work. It’s pretty darn cool that non-medical people like me can be a part of that.”
*pictured: Pepper Card, Mark Shields, and staff