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Ph.D Program Director receives top honor for transcultural nursing

by Laura Kammerer

DeAnne K. Hilfinger Messias never considered a nursing career when she loaded her backpack for Brazil in 1969 to serve in the Peace Corps.

She had earned her degree in Latin American studies from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and was ready to explore the world. But when she reached her station in Ribeirão Preto, an isolated area of the country, and began working in the outpatient clinic of a children’s hospital, the dearth of nurses was glaring. Although there were a number of skilled doctors, there were only two university-trained nurses, and she noticed that many patient care tasks were delegated to untrained, illiterate staff members.

Seeking to help fill that void, Messias, director of the Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing, returned to the States and in 1980 earned a second bachelor’s degree, this time in nursing. She then returned to Brazil where for about four years she trained and supervised health workers in remote villages along the Amazon River, with an emphasis on vaccinations, launching her career in transcultural nursing.

“Transcultural nursing is who I am,” Messias said. “I’ve always worked either in another language or culture. I’ve worked in the U.S. primarily with immigrant women on access to care and the multiple linguistic and cultural barriers that immigrants face.”

In recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field through her research, education, service and leadership, the Transcultural Nursing Society honored Messias as the 2017 recipient of the Leininger Transcultural Nursing Award, the society’s highest award named for Madeleine Leininger, who developed the theory and specialty area.

For nearly 40 years, Messias has developed projects and conducted research to advance culturally competent nursing, along the way mentoring more than 80 graduate and undergraduate students from several nationalities and universities in the United States and Brazil and authoring more than 20 book chapters and 70 peer-reviewed journal publications, several published in Portugese. She returned to Brazil as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2005.

“Very few nurses have the linguistic and clinical abilities to work and publish in two different cultures,” wrote Joyceen Boyle, adjunct nursing professor at the University of Arizona and the Medical College of Georgia, in her nomination letter.

 At Carolina, Messias helped to create and disseminate the Language for Healthcare Access initiative, an innovative, community-based English language curriculum designed to help recent Spanish-speaking immigrants improve their language skills and learn how to access health care in the United States.

Because Americans receive care differently than in other countries where, for instance, doctor’s visits may be less frequent and patients may go directly to the pharmacy for treatment, simply learning English is insufficient to improve immigrant health outcomes, she explained. Her community-based research programs have also shed light on how other barriers, such as lack of transportation and not understanding the healthcare system, affect immigrants’ health care access.

Messias also championed immigrant health issues statewide, providing leadership for the  South Carolina Hispanic/Latino Health Coalition, offering guidance to state and county health departments and educating providers about culturally competent care. In addition, Messias has studied Latinas’ experiences navigating cancer prevention services, women’s employment transitions, HIV/AIDS peer counseling and maternal/infant care, among other topics.

“Transcultural nursing is really a foundation for all nursing practice because every encounter is at some level a transcultural encounter,” Messias said. “It’s not just something that happens when we’re caring for people who look different or speak another language."