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Compassion in the midst of chaos



When the worst earthquake in two centuries hit Haiti last January about 10 miles southwest of capitol city Port au Prince, the aftershocks were felt 1,000 miles away in Jacksonville.


Once UNF alum Martha Seneca learned of the devastation caused by the quake — including a death toll of 250,000 and up to $13.2 billion in damages — she knew it was an opportunity to jump in and lend a helping hand. A 2004 graduate of UNF’s School of Nursing, Seneca had a successful career in family practice, but she and her husband, Michael, a graduate of UNF’s nurse anesthetist program, willingly dropped everything after the earthquake to become first responders.


In an ironic twist of fate, the Senecas had passed on an offer to vacation in Haiti the week the earthquake happened, but within a week of the disaster, they found themselves there anyway, volunteering at a makeshift field hospital to help people with life-threatening injuries.


“Had we decided to go to Haiti on that vacation, we might have ended up among the victims,” she reflected. “It was like getting a second chance, so there was no way we could refuse the call to help out.”


In the initial frenzy of trying to simultaneously care for more than 125 patients as part of Operation Medishare, Seneca relied upon her UNF training to help doctors quickly assess patients to expedite wound care, pain management and triage. Frightened, wriggling children are among the most challenging patients to treat, she said. So, with the assistance of her husband and two other medical professionals, they organized a specialty wound care table for young children that became a model for her colleagues.


“Despite the chaos going on around us, it just felt so natural to jump in and help out,” she said. “Serving others selflessly and taking on a leadership role when it is needed were integral values taught as part of UNF’s nursing program.”


Born in Mexico, Seneca’s roots to the University stem from early childhood. At the age of 4, Martha attended the Child Development Research Center, while her father pursued a science degree at UNF. The staff at the CDRC taught Seneca to speak fluent English, and she could think of no other University she wanted to attend when the time came for her to go to college.


After earning her bachelor’s degree, Seneca worked for four years in the pediatric oncology and hematology wards at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, where she said she learned how to help families adjust to “intensively catastrophic experiences that alter how they view the way the world was supposed to work.” 


Her sensitivity for others is just one of the reasons she won the Ludella Wilson Compassion in Nursing Award in 2004.


From her family and her education at UNF, she learned the importance of being a mentor to others. She has served in leadership roles, assisted with orientation programs for new nurses, taught portions of the chemotherapy certification courses and served as an adjunct clinical faculty for the School of Nursing, while pursuing her master’s degree to become a primary care nurse practitioner.


“Martha was a wonderful student. She was very responsible and extremely smart and had a degree of sensitivity towards the needs of others, which was very touching,” said Dr. Li Loriz, director of UNF’s School of Nursing.  “I was proud to be her teacher when she was an undergraduate student and then again as a nurse practitioner student. We learn as much from our students as they learn from us.”


Seneca is looking forward to returning to UNF in the fall to pursue another master’s degree and become a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. “I had never considered doing disaster relief until helping in Haiti,” she concluded. “But, we really made a difference in the lives of our patients and it made me feel more connected to the larger world.”