Goalie makes Olympic effort in Nicaragua

Feb. 28, 2011, 3:53 p.m. (ET)

Brianne McLaughlin couldn’t believe what she was seeing. When she volunteered to take a trip as a nursing student to Managua, Nicaragua, she thought she had an image in her mind of “the less fortunate.”

This two-week journey, however, brought to light the daily difficulties encountered by the impoverished.

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Brianne McLaughlin in Nicaragua. (Brianne McLaughlin)

“As much as people told us what to expect, you can’t grasp it until you’re there,” said McLaughlin, a goaltender on the silver-medal winning 2010 U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team. “The barrio is a completely different world. I was just staring out the window on the bus ride from the hotel to the barrio with my jaw open. Everything was so dirty; the streets are dirty. It was chaos everywhere. You’d see kids 5 years old weaving in and out of traffic.”

“But their houses and clothes are immaculate. They take pride in what they have.”

The poorest slums of Managua presented McLaughlin with a newfound appreciation for her lot in life — she is Robert Morris University nursing degree candidate and an Olympic silver medalist. And she is using those roles to help others.

Indeed, she has traveled quite a ways away from the bright lights and festivities she encountered earlier in the year in Vancouver.

McLaughlin thought her hockey career had ended when she was done at RMU in 2009. She was working as a nurse’s aide at a Pittsburgh hospital and hadn’t been on the ice in months when she got the invite to the Olympic Tryout Camp in Blaine, Minn. The call to Blaine changed her path, and she wound up representing Team USA on the women’s ice hockey team in Vancouver.

Goalkeeper Brianne McLaughlin #29 of the Team USA  Women's Ice Hockey team. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

McLaughlin might have been third in line on the goaltending depth chart in Vancouver — behind starter Jessie Vetter and Molly Schaus — but she was front and center during her Nov. 11-22 plunge into the other world she encountered in Managua.

Now she is juggling her hockey and nursing pursuits, hoping to make progress in those two very different worlds.

Nursing professor Carl Ross organizes three trips each year to Managua for RMU students in various medical fields at the Pittsburgh-based school. The group sets up a free medical clinic in the Managua slums so that the poorest of the poor are able to receive free medical services.

McLaughlin was assigned to one family for a week. A typical day consisted of spending two hours in the morning with the family to do medical assessments, and then returning to the tent clinic for the rest of the day with the other members of her entourage. Daily bus rides provided McLaughlin time to reflect on the lives she was trying to improve.

“We would check them out to see if they needed help or had problems,” McLaughlin said. “It was a pretty big family living in this tiny house. It was the mom, and two kids who were 18 and 19. The 19-year-old had a 13-month-old daughter. And this house, you wouldn’t believe it. They basically pick up scraps of metal and stand them up to form a structure. The 19-year-old’s boyfriend had a little brother living there also.”

“At the end of the week, we had a budget that we could use to provide them with something that they needed — a stove, a crib, whatever necessities,” McLaughlin added. “They live on a dirt floor and the beds have no pillows. The baby was sleeping on top of a pile of clothes. They had nothing at all, and when we asked them what they wanted, what they needed, they said, ‘Nothing.’

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Brianne McLaughlin in Nicaragua. (Brianne McLaughlin)

“The whole time I was there I felt so spoiled. These people had nothing and they wanted nothing. All they wanted was for a sinkhole in the back of the house to get filled because they didn’t want the little baby to fall in. That’s all they wanted.”

McLaughlin hails from the comfortable climate of Sheffield Village, Ohio. She could only gasp at some of the living conditions she witnessed in Nicaragua’s capital city.

“The nursing students would do triage at the tent clinic where anyone in the barrio could come in and get checked,” she said. “But it was like bringing a knife to a gunfight. These people had serious problems, and there was only so much we could do.

“But at the same time they were so appreciative of anything we could do for them. You’d walk down the streets and out of nowhere they’d come give you hugs. We gave the kids in the family a beach ball, and they played with it for eight hours that day. I’m not kidding.”

McLaughlin implemented her nursing expertise from the instant she arrived in the neighborhood.

“We were dealing with a lot of allergies because of the dirt — and headaches because they carry everything on their head. One guy said he had been having headaches for seven years, so we gave him glasses and by the end of the week his headaches had gone away. A company sent 300 pairs of glasses with us to distribute.”

McLaughlin also encountered a mental health care facility that made a lasting impression on her.

“It was a very, very old-school psych ward,” she said. “When the girls get admitted they get their heads shaved. We also went through a local hospital and handed out pajamas to the kids. The hospital felt like you had gone back in time about 500 years. Chest tubes were draining into a used two-liter plastic Coke bottle; people were getting stitched up in the hallways. There was no sterilization at all.

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Brianne McLaughlin visiting Managua, Nicaragua on a medical trip. (Brianne McLaughlin)

“I definitely came back feeling spoiled and grateful for what I have. I came back to my room and I was like ‘What do I need all this for? They have nothing.’ I looked at my iPod and my TV and was like ‘I’m a spoiled brat.’ When Christmas came, I told everyone I didn’t want anything at all.”

It’s a long way from Vancouver to Managua, but McLaughlin hopes to duplicate her 2010 stories both on and off the ice. She’s currently in a transition semester at RMU, where she’s on track to receive her bachelor’s degree in nursing in May. She’ll have worked 252 hours at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the conclusion of the semester.

Thanks to the efforts of Ross, McLaughlin and her fellow students came back eager to do more.  In 2010, Ross received the 2010 Pennsylvania Nurse Educator Award from the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association.

“He’s been there 74 times now,” McLaughlin said. “The day before we left, he hosted all of us for dinner at his house, and we each had to do a presentation about a different aspect of the Nicaraguan culture. My presentation was on families and how the extended families — cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents — all live in one house.”

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Brianne McLaughlin playing with children in Nicaragua. (Brianne McLaughlin)

McLaughlin hopes to see her adopted family again sometime.

“I want to go back in July,” she said. “I’ll have to see if it works out. We had a great group to go with and we all want to back together. On the day before we left, one of the families that Dr. Ross has helped significantly lives directly down the road from the clinic and invited all of us over to their house. They had a piñata, crackers, juice. They threw us this big party. Their son is now 17 and he loves to play the trumpet.

“Right after the group had left the previous trip, a gang had broken into their house and stole his trumpet. So Dr. Ross brought him a new trumpet and the boy started going nuts and played the trumpet for us all night.”

The trumpeted tunes, however, were quite a contrast to those she had remembered hearing while helping Team USA earn a silver medal in Vancouver. McLaughlin hopes to hear more music (perhaps “The Star Spangled Banner’’) at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

She’s already been selected to the 30-player preliminary roster for the U.S. Women’s National Team that will play in the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship in Switzerland. The 21-player roster will be named April 9.

McLaughlin’s playing rights are owned by the Burlington (Ont.) Barracudas of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

“I definitely want to go to Russia in 2014,’’ McLaughlin said. “I’m trying to move my way up the ladder, but I have to find something more conducive to the training I need. Last year in Vancouver was my rookie year, and I definitely want to have a more active role on the team next time around.”

For several people in need of care in Managua, that role has already been played to perfection.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Dave McMahon is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.