January 21, 2022 by John Fernandez
Homestead Nurse Overcomes Tragedy to Help Others
As a child, Danielle Pech Carson watched her younger brother suffer an agonizing death in the jungles of Cambodia, where her family was hiding. Starving, he had eaten a mushroom that turned out to be poisonous; no medical care was available and he died three days later. Her grandmother experienced a similarly horrific death; she was beaten by the Khmer Rouge after she tried to steal food.
Searing memories. Yet so much of those experiences formed who Ms. Carson is today. She watched loved ones suffer for lack of medical care, and she became a nurse. She was shown cruelty, and she developed compassion. She felt powerless under the brutal Communist movement that spawned Cambodia’s “killing fields,” and she made it her life’s work to assist and empower others.
“I have always enjoyed helping people,” said Ms. Carson, R.N., a nurse at Homestead Hospital’s Emergency Center. “I get great satisfaction knowing that something I do can make a difference. That is enough for me.”
Ms. Carson and her sister spent part of their childhood in forced labor at their mother’s side, helping to dig ditches after the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975.
She later learned those ditches may have been used as mass graves for some of the 1.5 million people murdered by the government in an effort to create a purely agrarian Communist state.
When the Khmer Rouge toppled in 1979, what remained of Ms. Carson’s family was fortunate to escape through Thailand. “We were the last people allowed on the last bus leaving,” she said. Ms. Carson was a frightened, emaciated 11-year-old. A church group sponsored her family so they could restart their lives in the United States.
Today, she is not only a successful nurse, she is a wife and mother of two boys, ages 8 and 10. She began working for Baptist Health 12 years ago as a critical care nurse at Mariners Hospital. Five years ago, she joined the staff at Homestead Hospital. “The ER has been the most challenging nursing of my career,” Ms. Carson said. “I have grown a lot professionally and personally because of it.”
Ms. Carson, 44, confronted her painful past when she traveled to Cambodia last year as a volunteer for Project Hope, a nonprofit organization that brings humanitarian assistance and healthcare to underdeveloped countries.
“I was pretty anxious about how I would be received,” said Ms. Carson, who carries guilt that she was able to escape and build a better life, when so many others were not. But her fears were soon forgotten. “The people were wonderful. They called me sister. They treated me like I was like a distant relative. It was overwhelming. I cried a lot while I was there.”
For a week, she worked with a team in a rural village outside of Phnom Penh, the capital. Makeshift exam rooms were set up in an elementary school and thousands lined up for the chance to see a doctor or nurse. Most had no access to healthcare because they lacked money or transportation to reach a clinic or hospital. “I felt so bad for the children,” Ms. Carson said.
She provided care and medications, and taught her Cambodian patients about self-care and disease prevention.
“It was just so meaningful for me to do that, to be able to pass on some of my knowledge and skill,” said Ms. Carson, who at the time was working toward her master’s degree in Florida International University’s family nurse practitioner program, which she has since completed.
Ms. Carson hopes to participate in a future mission. She was glad to return to South Florida not only to her family, but also to her work in the Homestead Hospital ER. “It’s like home to me,” she said.
The experience also left her with a renewed enthusiasm for the American healthcare system. “Here in the U.S. we have the best,” she said. “There is no comparison.”