When Bea Fingfing, RN, was a 13-year-old growing up in a tiny village in Suriname, South America, she witnessed an event that's stuck with her to this day. She was living with her extended family, including her mother's elderly uncle, Papa Kwamina, whom her mother diligently cared for. One day, he went to the outdoor bathroom and didn't return. Family members went looking and found him unconscious.
Kwamina had experienced a stroke, but nobody knew that at the time. He lived for two weeks, fighting to communicate as he lost the ability to form words. "We could barely understand what he was saying," Fingfing remembers. She recalls being upset about the lack of medical knowledge in their village and was frustrated that his death was a mystery. "I kept asking my mom, 'Why did he die? What took him away from us?'" she says. Her mother told her young daughter that she didn't know, but that it was up to Fingfing to go to school, study these things, come back and tell her.
From then on, it was Fingfing's goal to become a doctor. At 16, she left her village to live in the capitol city of Paramaribo and began a two-year program designed to prepare high school students for pre-medical school classes. But because her family didn't have the money to pay for medical school, she couldn't continue with her education after completing the program. "In a third-world country, if your parents aren't middle class or rich, that's it," she says. Undeterred from her goal to help others, Fingfing became a social worker for the government.
There are many remote villages in Suriname, accessible only by airplane, where Fingfing was sent on missions for months at a time to educate villagers on health and social issues. In each location, she faced a spectrum of obstacles, including having to pick up the local dialect. As a result, Fingfing now speaks Dutch, English and six native dialects of Suriname. She traces her aptitude for languages back to childhood. "Luckily, I would pick up languages easily," she says.
In the villages, she taught women about the dangers of raw meat, how to wash their children properly and how to make clothes. "I was very handy," she says. In one village, there was no school, so Fingfing and her team built one. Because Suriname's population includes people of many races and cultures, Fingfing learned from a young age to accept people's differences. Her mother taught her not to stereotype and to treat others the way she wanted to be treated. That attitude helped her transition to life in America, where she came in 1991 to get her nursing degree. "I adjust to situations really well," she says. She's now imparting that outlook to her three daughters, 18, 13 and 11, who have grown up in the United States.
Unlike in Suriname, here she had the chance to finish her education and became a nurse at Children's in 2007. "I feel I can be free and ask the questions I want here, without wondering what people are going to think about my culture," she says. Always on the hunt for more knowledge, she plans to go to back to school for an advanced degree. Fingfing is extremely proud of her accomplishments. "I wanted to be a doctor—that was my goal," she says. "But I got to be a nurse and I'm happy with that." When she cares for children, she thinks about her great-uncle, never forgetting that his last words were, 'Thank you' to her mother for caring for him. "People know when you treat them well. They appreciate it," she says.