How a trip to Haiti inspired a nursing career

Two months after earning dual bachelor’s degrees in English and French, Kelly Van Wyck (BS ‘09) moved to Haiti to work as a teacher at a village school. Two years and one life-altering experience later, Van Wyck left the country with a different career aspiration: nursing. 

Finding new perspective in Haiti

"UB’s rigorous training, while challenging, gave me a strong academic foundation to support my clinical skills. When I began working, I felt very well-prepared for the job ahead of me."
Kelly Van Wyck, BS '09

Van Wyck loved to travel and aspired to serve others, so she chose to teach English abroad. She traveled to Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, with Double Harvest, an organization that develops agricultural projects, advances education and builds local economies in developing nations.

Van Wyck found support in her transition through community. Her Haitian neighbors welcomed her with great kindness, and over time, became dear friends. She also lived with two Double Harvest employees from Quebec: one was a nurse and the other worked in business. 

“Living in Haiti was an amazing experience,” she says. “Being a stranger in a new country, away from everything familiar and comfortable, challenged me to my core. We only had access to electricity and water for a few hours each day, and I struggled with the language when I first arrived. Being an outsider gifted me the incredible opportunity to experience life from the point of view of an immigrant, or a person in a minority group. This guides my work to this day.”

During her two years in Haiti, Van Wyck also experienced the overturning of the country’s president and a coup d'état. 

“During the coup, the American government recommended that all non-Haitians evacuate the country for safety,” she explains. “While others left, I became acutely ill and couldn’t leave my house. My Haitian community, including doctors, nurses and friends, kept me hydrated and made me food that I could tolerate. I was surrounded by incredible people who protected me and cared for my body. They saved my life.

“Again, I was reminded of my naïveté,” she adds. “I thought I was going to Haiti to give myself to them, but I was the recipient of incredible care.”

A career-altering experience

That was not the only Haitian experience that changed the course of Van Wyck’s life.

“Community members assumed that I, as a foreigner, had access to resources, and sometimes brought me their sick children,” she says. “One evening, a friend showed up at my door, frantic with the news that his infant son was near death. Thankfully, my mother, who was a nurse, happened to be visiting.”

Van Wyck remembers her mother’s quick action – getting the keys and preparing to leave immediately, despite the lack of electricity, the unlit dirt roads and uncertain circumstances. She remembers her friend’s silent fear as he accompanied them. They arrived to find his wife holding the listless baby, and Van Wyck recounts feeling her own sense of fear and helplessness.

“Thankfully, my mother knew what to do,” she says. “She asked questions, and I translated them. She quickly determined that the baby was acutely ill due to dehydration and urgently needed fluids. 

“My mom was fierce, strong and focused. She knew we had to move fast if he were to survive the 20-minute ride back to our home where the supplies were located. She reassured the parents, wrapped the baby and got into the truck.

“When we made it to our home, I watched my mom insert an IV into the dehydrated baby – a nearly impossible task. Within 30 minutes, the baby’s color improved, and he was awake and alert. Within two hours, the baby could take oral fluids.”

Today, that baby is 20 years old. 

“It was a transformative experience,” Van Wyck says. “I saw the incredible power of providing life-saving care. My mother’s expertise as a nurse empowered her to make a difference in a moment of need. I was inspired – and at that moment, I knew I wanted to become a nurse myself.” 

Hitting the ground running at UB

Shortly after returning home, she met her husband, James M. Van Wyck.

“I briefly lived in New Jersey before moving to Michigan for a job as an editor at a publishing company,” she explains. “We met during those three weeks and then dated long-distance for three years while I was in Michigan.”

During that time, Van Wyck took prerequisite nursing courses. In 2006, James relocated to Buffalo to begin UB’s Master of Arts in English Program. That winter, the two married and she joined him in Buffalo.

In 2007, she enrolled in the School of Nursing’s Accelerated BS Program. 

“UB had a fantastic nursing program,” she explains. “My goal was to complete a nursing program that was clinically proficient and academically excellent as soon as possible. I was so grateful that I got in – I knew I had a wonderful opportunity in front of me.”

Van Wyck believes the program gave her a broad understanding of nursing’s role in the world.

“UB’s rigorous training, while challenging, gave me a strong academic foundation to support my clinical skills," she says. “When I began working, I felt very well-prepared for the job ahead of me.” 

Kelly Van Wyck with her husband, James Van Wyck, and their three children.

Elevating nursing’s seat at the table

After earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing, Van Wyck moved back to New Jersey, where she worked as an emergency room nurse for nine years. Her experience working in an ER inspired her to return to school, and in 2017 she graduated with her Doctor of Nursing Practice from Rutgers Graduate School in Newark. 

“Nurses are the heart and soul of health care,” she says. “I wanted the honor of serving patients in their moment of need. I also wanted a seat at the leadership table, to participate in higher-level health care discussions.”

Today, Van Wyck is a family nurse practitioner and associate medical director of population health and clinical outcomes at Vanguard Medical Group in Randolph, New Jersey. She and her husband now have three children, who keep them both busy and very happy.

“I’m a primary care provider in a family practice, so I see patients of all ages within the family,” she says. “It’s incredible to care for a variety of patients in one day – I treat whole families, from babies to grandparents. By understanding family and home life, I can take into consideration both assets and barriers to care, providing more personalized care for my patients.” 

As an associate medical director, she is also involved in strategic planning to develop approaches to chronic disease management, community health and vaccination, COVID-19 vaccine distribution and evidence-based primary care.

Her long-term goal is to move into a teaching and research position.

“I dream of providing mentorship for the next generation of nurses and nurse practitioners,” she says. "COVID-19 enabled society to understand the crucial role of nurses within health care, and now the medical community must listen and respond. I want to encourage nursing students to educate themselves, learn to communicate within various disciplines and continue to advocate for patients and for the next generation of nurses.”

Throughout her impressive career, Van Wyck has completed several global volunteer trips back to Haiti – and is hoping to go back with another medical group as soon as she can. 

Story by Grace Gerass

Published November 28, 2022

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