DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Port Angeles nurse can ‘go anywhere’

“I’LL GO ANYWHERE,” she told me. Marilyn Perkins is a recovery nurse, there when a child awakens after major surgery.

In hospitals from El Salvador to India, babies have rested in her arms.

This fall Perkins, a 43-year resident of Port Angeles, flew to Dhaka and then to Sylhet, Bangladesh, where she worked for two weeks straight.

Here’s how the anything-but-typical days went:

• 4:45 a.m.: The call to prayer comes from the nearby mosque. Perkins rises, unrolls her mat and practices yoga for 20 or 30 minutes, then breakfasts and prepares for work.

• 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.: Perkins’ team of surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses operate on youngsters from across Bangladesh — burn survivors and children with cleft lips and palates. Perkins, as the nurse who ensures each patient is recovered and settled in the post-op unit, is the last to leave.

From the tiny Grant County town of Grand Coulee, Perkins moved to Port Angeles in the mid-1970s. She worked for many years with Dr. Sam Baker, and later went to the University of Washington to earn her bachelor of science in nursing. She devoted decades to nursing young patients, working full-time while she and her high school sweetheart-husband Kerry raised their two sons.

Fourteen Christmas Eves ago, she sent in an application to go abroad on a medical mission sponsored by Interplast, now ReSurge International.

She remembers thinking: If she could make only one trip, let it be Vietnam. The history and culture there called to her.

Four days later, she got the phone call: Want to go to Vietnam in May? Port Angeles colleagues had recommended Perkins so highly that her application had sped through the process.

This year’s Rotary Club-sponsored trip to Sylhet was Perkins’ 14th medical mission. She has worked with doctors from Zambia, Turkey and Spokane, caring for children on two missions to Peru, two to India and one each to Vietnam, the Philippines, El Salvador, China, Guatemala and Bolivia.

At 70, Perkins wonders whether she’s getting too old to do this. Friends tell her no.

Her husband, with whom she celebrated 50 years of marriage this past October, is ever supportive of her travels and her profession.

“He knows how important it is to me,” she said.

In Sylhet, the nursing team ‘just melded,’ ” Perkins added.

“It felt like we’d always worked together.”

After two days in transit, they go to the local hospital and begin setting up a clinic. Perkins and her colleagues evaluate scores of patients, many of them youngsters terrified of this woman who has to stick them with a needle for a blood test.

Then come the life-altering surgeries. The patients’ families place their trust in Perkins and her team; they share one hope.

“They’re like all parents: They want their kids to have a better life and to go to school,” Perkins told me. Repairing a cleft lip or palate means release from stigma.

On the last day, the moms bring gifts. One of Perkins’ most treasured things was given to her by a woman in Guatemala: her own small purse. In Bangladesh, she was given a delicate bracelet; in the northwest corner of China, lavender sachets, not unlike the ones in Sequim.

Throughout the long trip back, the experience stays in Perkins’ heart: the vivid colors, the farewell hugs.

“When I come home, I feel extremely humbled,” she said. “I never want to lose that feeling.

“Who knew that a little skinny girl from Grand Coulee would see the world?”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Dec. 19.

Reach her at [email protected]

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