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University of Colorado College of Nursing

College of Nursing

Faculty Stories

Lynn Gilbert’s career has embraced children in Africa and Haiti

Lynn Gilbert’s love affair with Africa began in high school when she was one of ten students selected from across the nation to embark on a sort of goodwill mission to Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.

“I was 15 then and it really turned my life around,” says Gilbert, an associate professor at the CU College of Nursing who specializes in pediatric health. “As a result of that I received a full scholarship to Stanford in international relations. I wanted a practical skill so I went into nursing.”

Working in Africa

But the Africa bug never wore off. After earning her degree, she spent a decade as a public health nurse mostly in the cities and remote villages of Ghana and Nigeria. The work was low tech, the conditions spartan and occasionally dangerous. She trained local nurses and village health workers in pediatric care.

“In Nigeria they would put a bangle on a child’s arm after birth, and if it later fell off they knew from experience that probably meant the child would die of malnutrition,” she says.

During the Biafran conflict in Nigeria, she worked with badly wounded civilians caught up in the civil war. She also worked in the Sudan, Swaziland and Lesotho.

“I really find it more fun and more rewarding to work in those kinds of areas,” she says. “It’s a way to learn about the world and the universals of children – how they learn words, how they play.”

Gilbert, who earned a PhD in behavioral pediatrics and community child health, eventually returned to Colorado where she taught nursing and worked at the People’s Clinic in Boulder.

Working in Haiti

As rewarding as it was, it couldn’t match the fascination of the developing world. So when she had a chance to go to Haiti in 1999, she took it.

“It was as close to Africa as I could get,” she says.

Gilbert and the pediatrician she would later marry worked with a Colorado Haiti Project team to set up clinics where they saw between 600 and 1,000 people a week, treating everything from machete wounds to dysentery. She’s been to Haiti seven more times, but this year’s trip was postponed after last January’s earthquake.

“The ability of the people there to live within the constraints of poverty is amazing,” she says. “They have something beyond patience and resilience. I call it Haitience. But the earthquake really shook people’s faith.”

About Professor Gilbert

Gilbert, 67 with two grown sons, hopes to return next year.

Aside from her work overseas, she has earned accolades in this country. Gilbert won the 2009 Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Pioneer Award for her work in pediatric health care. In 15 years of teaching at CU, she’s been able to bring her experience abroad into the classroom. The result, she says, is more nurses interested in working outside the U.S.

At the same time, Gilbert and her son have invented a new way to monitor cardiovascular risk factors in children called the HeartSmartKids system that she hopes will be used in community clinics nationwide.

“I love working with children,” she says. “They are more fun than adults.”