Seton grad heals the poor at home and abroad

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There is nothing quite like cleaning a machete wound to make you realize you are not in Virginia anymore. For Laura Shaw, this was just one of the skills she acquired during a mission trip to Honduras in 2012.

Growing up in the suburbs of Manassas, Shaw never imagined she'd go on a medical mission.

"My parents raised us to love the poor and treat them with dignity," said Shaw. "But there was never a moment in my childhood that pointed to mission work." She felt called to serve those in need, so after graduating from Seton High School in Manassas she attended Catholic University in Washington where she studied nursing.

It was around the time of her graduation that Shaw found herself in a quandary. She was ready for the "next step" in her life but was not quite sure what that was. She felt she was not being called to the religious life like her twin sister, Amanda, who had just entered a Dominican convent, yet she had the desire to do God's will and serve others. The idea of doing mission work did not cross her mind until a talk with Little Workers of the Sacred Heart Sister Dede Byrne, a general surgeon for the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington. Sister Dede suggested Shaw consider working with Farm of the Child, an organization run by Franciscan nuns in Honduras who were in great need of medical volunteers.

After much discernment and prayer to St. Teresa, the 27 year old boarded a plane for Honduras in August 2012 for what she thought would be a one-year mission.

When Shaw and the other missionaries arrived, work began almost immediately.

"At first it was overwhelming," said Shaw. "Everything yanks you out of your comfort zone all the time."

The home clinic served the 30 orphans who lived in the compound as well as people from the surrounding area.

"We saw patients with chronic disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and a lot of different skin infections," said Shaw. "People not taking medications was a problem, so we tried to educate them about that and educate them on diet."

Despite two months of language classes, communication was often a struggle.

"One of the problems with communicating with patients was that they would begin to talk about every medical problem and pain they ever had," said Shaw. "You had to sort out what was past and what was current pain."

Forming relationships with the people was a huge blessing to Shaw who was very homesick the first year. The people of Honduras opened their hearts and their homes to the missionaries, and soon the work she was doing became more than just a job.

"The people were not just patients. This was my community, my family," said Shaw. "I relied on these people and they took me in."

Her one-year mission trip turned into two years - a decision she made because of her growing love for the people and the work she was doing.

"It is really helpful for the kids to be able to form a relationship with you," said Shaw.

Not only did she care for their physical needs but they often came to her to talk about what was happening in their lives, many coming from difficult backgrounds.

"There was so much need and not just for doctors but to be a part of their lives," said Shaw. "I just gave every day to God and loved them the way He wanted me to love them."

When it came time for her to leave, Shaw and her fellow missionaries tried to spend as much quality time with their patients as possible. Shaw said goodbye to her four godchildren and their families with whom she had become very close.

Looking back on the experience, she sees it not as a great act of charity on her part but a wonderful opportunity provided by God. She felt that He worked through her in ways she never imagined possible.

"So many times I felt unprepared and incapable, but God works through that," said Shaw.

The trip changed the way she looked at poverty and also enabled her to see religious life in a way she had not been able to understand before.

"While I was down there in this strange place away from my family, I started to feel a connection to my sister who was in the convent. We both had limited access to family and were totally dependent on strangers in a new environment," said Shaw. "In a way we were both sharing a mission to embrace poverty, chastity and obedience, and I began to understand her mission and appreciate the beauty of the life that she had chosen."

Shaw's desire to serve the poor did not stop when she returned to the United States. She accepted a position as a nurse practitioner at the Spanish Catholic Center and now works with the poor and underserved in Washington. Although there are fewer machete lacerations to suture, she finds much joy in using her vocation as a nurse practitioner to serve the poor. She encourages others who might not know what they are being called to do in life, to find every opportunity to "be God's hands and feet."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015