APU Professor Empowers Nurses in India

by Abigail Reed

Blaring horns and screeching motorcycle tires, fragrance wafting from a local food vendor cooking fresh dal, fireworks popping and smoking—Catherine Heinlein, EdD, RN, associate professor in APU's School of Nursing, walks her usual morning commute down the streets of Kolkata, India. Once she arrives at the Mission of Mercy Hospital, Heinlein descends to her assigned basement office and brushes mildew off her work shoes. Throughout the afternoon, Heinlein equips 48 young women with preventative healthcare methods and procedures that prepare them for their healthcare careers. As the day comes to a close, Heinlein retraces her steps through the crowded streets and climbs the stairs to her one-bedroom flat at the William Carey Baptist Mission Society (BMS). Heinlein’s passion for healthcare in India provides a striking picture of God’s work in the world.

How did God call you overseas? What led you to India in particular?

In 2008, APU nursing professor Pamela Cone asked for faculty volunteers to lead a short-term India trip. Like most things in my life, I jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. That same summer, I joined the team. Previous mission trips did not prepare me for the shock factor of Kolkata. My preconceived ideas were challenged. The people of Kolkata are not necessarily starving with the chronic malnutrition (marasmus) often seen in National Geographic, rather, they are struggling with noncommunicable diseases as a result of development. India is experiencing extremely high rates of type 2 diabetes and is currently number one globally with this disease. I could not forget what I saw there. Since then, I have journeyed to Kolkata 10 times to work in their healthcare field.

How did India impact your view of teaching?

The Indian classroom culture challenged me. This particular school did not have access to individual nursing textbooks, partly due to their expense. As a result, teachers read lessons directly from pages of their textbook and the students were expected to take detailed notes. I decided to introduce a rather unconventional teaching approach by creating an active, hands-on learning environment. My classroom took on an atmosphere of collaboration and unity as we focused on methods for assessing the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle, such as glucose testing, and discussed realistic goals to combat diabetes and other diseases. Teaching eager students to lead a healthy lifestyle empowers them to take their knowledge to the clinics and surrounding area to build a healthier community.

Did sharing your faith play a role in your work in India? What did this look like?

Yes! I had opportunities through various ministries to share my faith with the people around me. During my annual trips to India with APU students, we partner with Big Life and share our testimonies or the Gospel message with people from remote areas. On one trip, we journeyed out to an island where the Gospel had never been heard and faced a crowd that quietly waited to hear what I had to say. Like Jesus when he faced the hungry multitude with a few loaves of bread and two fish, all I had was a frayed rope and one brick. I couldn’t draw in the dirt; the soil was too hard for even a rock to penetrate. I used the rope and brick to create a line and demonstrate the Christian transformation through Jesus: I was once dead in my sin; now I have been made new. My limited resources pushed me to rely on my previous saturation in the Word and make use of the supplies around me. During my Fulbright trip, I shared and demonstrated my faith with the visitors that come to stay at BMS from all over the world—whether in small group gatherings or meeting for coffee. Along with this, I lived the example of a nurse giving physical, emotional, and spiritual care to those in need.

What did APU students learn from the Short-Term Study Abroad India program you led?

This is a challenging trip. When students see the incredible need around them, they often desire to fix it all. When they realize this is not possible, many ask, “What are we even doing here?” As we serve with organizations throughout Kolkata—whether cleaning human excrement or treating acid burn wounds—we humbly realize it is not about “fixing” it all. Every act of service matters—from the little child you clean or the woman you feed. I know APU students who cannot forget their experience in India.

How has your time in India impacted your work as a professor?

During the annual summer short-term study abroad through APU’s School of Nursing, I had the opportunity to serve alongside and live next to students in a country unfamiliar with them. After this experience, I value personal relationships and vulnerability in my classroom. Because of the challenges we encountered together, our groups gathered every day to share stories and concerns. Our philosophy became, “I’m with you.” I’ve taken this model back to main campus at APU.

How will your experiences in Kolkata continue to affect your life?

I already bought my ticket to return this coming summer. The nursing students in my study will be graduating, and I promised I would return to see them. I plan on continuing these relationships throughout the years. India has truly become my second home. I’m also currently working on compiling my 10 journals from each of my 10 trips into a book entitled, Inspired by the Conditions: A Story About the Gem Underneath the Debris in Kolkata, India.

What advice would you give college students considering ministry overseas?

The need is great. Just do it. Whether you are in healthcare or another field like teaching, most places will welcome you with enthusiasm. Wherever you go, remain a team with your fellow workers and serve together in community. As you pour into the people and meet their needs, you will be richly blessed.

Abigail Reed is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a liberal studies major with an honors humanities minor.