A passion for bringing healthcare to the disenfranchised

By Debra Bradley Ruder

The woman was living under a bridge in Lowell, Massachusetts, when nursing student Celsea Tibbitt first met her. She was selling sex, shooting up, eating poorly, estranged from her family, and terrified of the men who controlled her daily life.

Tibbitt encountered the woman as a public health RN and case manager on the Bouvé Health and Wellness Van, which brings healthcare to disenfranchised populations throughout eastern Massachusetts.

After the woman tested positive for HIV and vowed to turn her life around, Tibbett started meeting with her weekly to coordinate doctor’s visits and prescriptions and get her set up with a photo ID, food stamps, dental care, and other essentials. As a result, she reconnected with her family and eventually felt healthier, safer, and more confident.

“That experience was a big reminder that you can’t just have one appointment with a patient and expect them to be fine, because they have contributing factors that take time [to resolve],” said Tibbitt, BSN’16, RN, PhD’21. “What I’ve learned from my experiences on the van and elsewhere is that if you equip people with education, they’ll make the right decisions.”

As a doctoral candidate who has worked on the van since she was an undergraduate, Tibbitt has made the most of the real-world learning opportunities at Bouvé. She has helped develop an HIV education program through Tufts University, taught nursing students at a Boston program for homeless people, and helped Bouvé’s Tracy Robinson-Wood conduct research on microagressions among highly educated minorities.

Although she completed undergraduate co-ops at two of the nation’s leading hospitals—Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital—the co-op with the biggest impact took place in Cameroon, West Africa. It was on a bare-bones a maternity ward where she ran a clinic to examine pregnant moms and newborns with not much more than a stethoscope.

She witnessed the resilience of African women, who typically walked or rode to the hospital alone and left with their new babies strapped to their backs. And she saw how the allocation of scarce resources can be critical—and sometimes heart-wrenching. At one point, a staffer had to allow a premature infant die in Tibbitt’s arms because the hospital had to save its limited oxygen supply for other patients.

“You know how to sustain the baby’s life, but if your resources are limited, you have to make these terrible decisions,” she said.

That traumatic episode inspired Tibbitt to join the team at Therapeutic Innovations, a startup founded by Solomon Mensah, PhD’18, that is designing low-cost breathing machines to help premature infants in developing countries.

While doing all this—and earning her doctorate—Tibbitt has maintained her dedication to the wellness van, which provides health screening, education, and treatment to the underprivileged.  This is where she feels closest to her life’s ambition to improve healthcare for the most vulnerable among us.

“Celsea has a calm, caring, respectful demeanor when interacting with her patients,” said clinical instructor and mentor Catherine O’Connor, who directs the Bouvé Health and Wellness Van. Calling her an unsung hero, O’Connor said, “Nurses like Celsea are all that is good about health care.”

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