Kiki Cunningham and Hayden Murrell save lives after earning nursing degrees

MURRAY, Ky. — Two Murray State alumnae are using their nursing degrees to provide health care in remote African villages.

Kiki Cunningham is a Murray native who graduated from the University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Since graduation, she has served in a variety of capacities at Murray-Calloway County Hospital, Tri-Star Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, and Mercy Health’s home office in Cincinnati.

“During a sermon at my home church, Gospel Life Global Missions was giving a presentation,” Cunningham said. “As I sat there listening, I knew this was where God wanted me to be. I quit my job, sold everything I had and moved to Malawi, Africa.”

Gospel Life Medical serves approximately 15 rural villages surrounding the city of Zomba in Malawi. As the director of compassion ministries, Cunningham assembles mobile medical clinics to transport medicine, supplies and doctors to provide health care to remote villages.

“Many people in Malawi do not have these resources and are left to fend for themselves in medical emergencies,” Cunningham said. “My work is important because the people of Malawi are suffering and dying from diseases that can be treated and even prevented with education.”

Murray State alumna Kiki Cunningham speaks to a patient while working as a physician in Malawi, Africa.

After driving for hours on dusty dirt roads to reach villages, the team sets up the mobile clinics under tents. Patients of all ages and diseases are treated, ranging from malaria to hypertension. On a typical day, two doctors can see around 400 patients.

“The education I received at Murray State was second to none,” Cunningham said. “Knowing that I have the training and medical expertise needed to care for people allows me to go in confidence to another country to practice.”

Hayden Murrell of Lexington, Kentucky, knew she wanted to do mission work long before graduating from Murray State in 2012 with her nursing degree.

“I developed a heart for mission work in middle school after working with youth in northern Ireland, but I had visions and dreams of Africa,” Murrell said. “I was fortunate to have a community around me that supported and encouraged me towards missions.”

During her senior year at Murray State, Murrell met a Ugandan doctor who ran a small hospital and needed help with capacity building and outreach.

“Once I was on the ground in Uganda, I realized the best way to make sustainable change was to partner with local organizations,” Murrell said. “However, my goal for the first six months at this hospital was to learn the Ugandan health care system, which runs vastly different from the United States health care system.”

In fact, most of Murrell’s experiences in the Ugandan village were vastly different from her upbringing in the Bluegrass State. She traded air conditioning and tap water to live in a cinder block house with one light bulb, using a pit latrine to pump a day’s worth of water from a borehole.

When walking to the hospital on her first day of work, she was asked to scrub in and assist with a cesarean section on a young girl. After building a connection with the family, they decided to name the baby Hayden.

“I went in with eyes wide open and learned more than I ever thought possible,” Murrell said. “Murray State gave me a rich ground for exploring diversity and other cultures.”

Murray State alumna Hayden Murrell poses for a photo with a patient in Uganda.

In addition to applying the skills she learned in the nursing program, Murrell relied on her professors’ advice to provide the best care for her patients.

“The best advice one of my nursing professors gave me was to listen to patients, because they will often tell you exactly what they need,” Murrell said. “This advice was invaluable on the mission field. Though I went ready to train and conquer disease processes, I found that listening to the people of Uganda was really the ticket to deeper healing.”

While her days ranged from treating malaria, delivering babies and teaching disease prevention programs, one thing was constant— her love for her patients.

“My patients, who I never expected to pay me anything, rewired my thinking and gave me the biggest gift I could ever imagine,” Murrell said. “Though I am now practicing as a certified nurse-midwife in the United States, my perspective on human presence, healing touch, poverty, racial disparities and compassion is forever changed.”

Stories such as these are a testament of how faculty members educate students to provide nursing care to patients in a variety of settings.

“We are extremely proud of Kiki and Hayden and the work that they have completed,” said Dr. Dina Byers, professor and graduate coordinator of the School of Nursing and Health Professions. “I believe that while at Murray State, they gained a solid foundation which allowed them to grow personally and professionally, ultimately impacting others.”

Their impact, both domestically and internationally, emulates the characteristics of a Murray State nursing graduate.

“It is thrilling to know that Murray State graduates are using their talents and educational preparation to work with vulnerable populations on a global scale,” said Dr. Dana Todd, associate professor and undergraduate coordinator of the School of Nursing and Health Professions. “The love, compassion and care these nurses are providing are improving the health of those with the greatest need.”

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