SIKESTON -- Nurse practitioner Helen Waters of Matthews set out to gain a better understanding of the health field in China when she traveled to the country earlier this month.
But the 49-year-old, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, also learned a personal lesson along her journey.
Waters, a member of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, spent Oct. 26 through Nov. 7 in China as a primary care and mental health professional delegate for People to People International, a voluntary effort of private citizens promoting international understanding through direct people-to-people contact.
"It was really strange because I got a letter inviting me to be a delegate on this trip on the same day I got the letter to go back for a repeat mammogram," recalled Waters.
That was in June, and on July 3, Waters was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite her bad news, Waters said she was determined to go on the trip.
"I had a lumpectomy and was to start chemotherapy, and my oncologist was being a dear. I said, 'This is what's happening and coming up and you've got to get me to China,'" Waters said.
So her doctors worked with her and was able to schedule Waters' chemotherapy sessions to wrap up one week before she left for China.
"It would have been so easy for me to say, 'No, I've got cancer.'" Waters said about her decision to visit China. "But you just don't get these opportunities every day."
In late October, Waters -- the only Missouri representative -- joined 22 other delegates and six guests as they visited Beijing, Guiyang and Shanghai. Where Waters visited, there is one nurse for every 10 doctors, she said.
Waters and her group of delegates participated in roundtable discussions with physicians in hospital and clinical settings. They also observed others at work.
"When you have only one nurse in the entire hospital, it's hard for them to participate in discussions," Waters said about meeting with Chinese nurses.
Waters said the way the health system works in China is not the way it works in the United States.
"If you get sick here, you can go to any hospital. It doesn't work that way there. They have a definite system, where you start out at the lowest level (of medical care) at the village clinic, and from there, you are referred upward to the next level," Waters said.
Chinese physicians were amazed when the group's nurse practitioners explained their responsibilities in the United States.
"When we told them what we did -- nurses who actually can get to the point where they assess, diagnose and prescribe -- that's unheard of," Waters said.
Treatments of diseases such as acupuncture, herbal remedies and "cupping" -- when warm glass bowls and placed on the skin -- were also discussed.
"We did a lot of discussion on payment sources and who paid for treatment. In China, treatment is paid for by the government. ... It's more of a government insurance," Waters said.
The U.S. health insurance system is so complex compared to China's, she said.
"To them, everybody gets treated. Here, you get treatment for emergencies and don't get to see specialists (without coverage)," Waters said.
The group was also allowed to visit a school, and a women's and children's hospital where Waters met an oncologist who specialized in breast cancer. Waters' roommate on the trip was also a five-year breast cancer survivor.
"It truly was a trip that was meant to be," Waters said.
As different as the United States and China are, Waters said she couldn't help but notice similarities.
"It's not that different from here to there. We're all similar in our wants and goals and desires," Waters said.
Waters, who works in the psychiatric ward at Southeast Missouri Hospital in Cape Girardeau, is currently enrolled in the Mental Health Nurse Practitioners graduate program through the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Less than a week after returning from China, Waters underwent radiation treatment. And although juggling treatments, work, school and her trip are starting to take their toll, she wouldn't change anything.
"Through my trip, I got to climb the Great Wall of China, and I got to go into the Forbidden Palace. ... It was a great trip and a great opportunity, and I thank God I got to do it," Waters said.
Waters encouraged others to take life's opportunities when they arise.
"You've got a life to live," Waters said. "If there's one thing I want people to take away from this it's that illness is not your life."