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Senior uses creative communication to interact with patients

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This article originally appeared as a Feature Story in the University of Richmond Newsroom

Communication is a key component of successful leadership, said Emma Nash, ’20. Yet, she added, her initial attempts to communicate with three-year-old Juan* from Belize during the first week of her Jepson internship fell flat.

With the support of a Robert L. Burrus Jr. Fellowship, Nash, a Science Leadership Scholar double majoring in leadership studies and psychology, spent the summer interning with the World Pediatric Project (WPP). The Richmond-based nonprofit provides pro bono life-changing and life-saving surgeries for children from Latin American and Caribbean nations.

“Juan had just had his tracheal tube removed,” Nash said. “He was in an unfamiliar place, hearing people speaking an unfamiliar language. I couldn’t get him to talk to me, or even look at me, no matter how hard I tried.

“So I drew on what I had learned about emotional intelligence in my Theories and Models of Leadership class. Leaders have to recognize others’ emotions and then help them regulate their stress. I realized I had to use a form of communication other than language to engage him.”

Nash learned from Juan’s mother that he loved soccer, so she asked him if he’d like to play soccer with her.

“He ran out from behind his mother’s legs, got his ball, and started kicking the ball with me,” Nash said. From that moment on, they were fast friends.

Nash helped WPP patients and their families feel comfortable in their temporary U.S. home. She took them to the grocery store and pharmacy and served as a liaison to the doctors and nurses responsible for their medical care.

“If I could just be someone who listened,” she said, “I could build trust with them.”

The WPP internship dovetailed beautifully with Nash’s interest in understanding child trauma, she said. She began exploring this issue her sophomore year when she started mentoring a child in Richmond’s East End to fulfill the service-learning requirement of her Justice and Civil Society class. She has continued mentoring because she finds it rewarding.

“I am drawn to kids,” Nash said. “I was very fortunate to have a lot of amazing people supporting me throughout my childhood. Anything I can do to help another child have that kind of experience drives me.”

In addition to mentoring, Nash has explored child psychology through research. She spent two semesters with Dr. Karen Kochel, assistant professor of psychology, researching the effect of bullying on children.

Dr. Crystal Hoyt, professor of leadership studies and psychology, will serve as the faculty mentor for Nash’s Jepson senior honors thesis on how mindsets can affect resiliency.

This summer, the Midlothian, Va., native applied what she has learned about effective communication to her work as a go-between for medical professionals and child patients and their parents.

“In my leadership studies classes and as a member of the University of Richmond field hockey team, I’ve learned that communication is what makes teams work,” Nash said. “When communication becomes impaired, the team starts to break down.

“To be effective in my internship where language is often a barrier, I’ve learned to communicate in creative, different ways. I used charades to communicate with a German-speaking teen patient from a Mennonite community in Belize.”

Her WPP internship affirmed her interest in child psychology and humanitarian aid, topics she hopes to pursue in graduate school, she said.

“I treasure the relationships I’ve formed with the World Pediatric Project families,” Nash said. “I now have friends in rural towns in Belize and Panama. To see these children overcome their health challenges is so inspiring. I am grateful to be along on their journey.”
*The patient’s name has been changed to protect his confidentiality.

Photo: Emma Nash with two patients, courtesy of World Pediatric Project