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A South End Health-Care Pioneer

Anna Bissonnette teaches much more than how to inoculate

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Anna Bissonnette (SON’69), founder of the Boston Coalition for Adult Immunization, helps Chad Mayer (MED’13) give his first influenza vaccination. (Below) Sally Hurlbut; Jessica Moon (MED’13). Photos by Vicky Waltz

The sun is setting as Anna Bissonnette and four first-year BU School of Medicine students don white lab coats and step outside. Armed with dozens of syringes and bottles of influenza vaccine, they cross the Medical Campus quadrangle and make their way up Albany Street to Bay Cove Human Services, a nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, and addiction disorders.

The students chatter as they climb the stairs. For the past month, they’ve practiced giving saline injections — to oranges, limes, and one another. Tonight they’ll vaccinate their first patients.

As volunteers with MED’s Boston Coalition for Adult Immunization (BCAI), the students deliver free flu vaccinations to underserved populations in and around Boston with the help of nurse, program founder, and social activist Bissonnette (SON’69). They join a long line of first- and second-year BU medical students, along with students from Tufts and Harvard, she has taught and then accompanied to clinics, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.

Bissonnette enters a colorful room and distributes supplies among four workstations. Patients wait on the other side, some visibly frightened by the commotion, others calmly staring. As the students watch, nurse and longtime volunteer Sally Hurlbut swabs the arm of a caretaker and deftly delivers the first vaccination.

“Quick and easy,” she says. “In and out, like a dart.”

Before long, the students are ready to give it a try. A caretaker steps forward, a weeping woman clinging to her side. Ashley Roque (MED’13) takes a deep breath and kneels in front of the woman. “I promise this won’t hurt,” she says, rolling up the woman’s sleeve. “It will be over before you know it.”

Sobbing, the woman buries her face into her caretaker’s shoulder, and Roque takes the syringe in both hands. “Like a dart,” Hurlbut reminds her. Roque quickly delivers the shot.

Before long all four students, hands steady, voices soothing, are administering injections. “I didn’t think I would be nervous,” says Chad Mayer (MED’13), “but at first, I was shaking.”

By the time the last patient leaves, the students have given more than 70 injections. “It was great,” says Sam Moradian (MED’13). “I didn’t expect it to be so busy.” 

“You all did great,” Bissonnette says, patting him on the back. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

As she maneuvers her car through traffic later that evening, Bissonnette reflects on her neighborhood’s evolution and why she started the vaccination program.

The South End was hardly chic or trendy 30 years ago. There were no fancy coffee shops or overpriced bistros, no posh martini bars or art galleries, no high-end condominiums. “It was very urban, very poor,” she recalls. “All of those multimillion-dollar brownstones were boarding houses.”

A nurse at Boston University Medical Center, Bissonnette treated hundreds of South End patients, many elderly and homebound. “They could barely afford food, let alone medical care,” she says.

But as the housing market boomed and rents soared, Bissonnette and her colleagues noticed an alarming trend: elderly South End residents were being displaced from their apartments. With no place to go, many ended up homeless, in shelters or on the streets.

“Gentrification did us no favors,” she says. “I saw people who were in their 70s and 80s forcibly removed from their homes. They were sick, confused, heartbroken. It was awful.” Their plight led Bissonette to establish BCAI.

She has spent most of her career advocating for elders, and at 77, she hasn’t slowed down. Preventive medicine, such as vaccinations, is key to keeping people well, she says, “and seniors typically have limited incomes. They often don’t have good nutrition, or they may not have warm clothing or sufficient heat, which makes them more susceptible to disease.”

Born and raised in an Illinois village south of Chicago, Bissonnette attended nursing school at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee. She moved to Massachusetts shortly after to enter a novitiate program at the Marist Missionary Sisters Hospital in Bedford. “I was going to be a nun and work in hospitals overseas,” she recalls. “But then I got a different calling.” 

She returned to Illinois and spent three years taking nursing courses at Loyola University. After graduation, she joined a small order of nuns who ran a 60-bed general hospital in Cambridge, Mass. When the nuns sold the hospital to a nursing home corporation several years later, Bissonnette stayed on as an administrator. “That’s how I got into the field of elder nursing,” she says.

While managing the nursing home, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Boston College and a master’s at BU. She taught at the School of Nursing, now closed, and the School of Medicine as an associate professor for many years and oversaw the Home Medical Service at Boston University Medical Center, now Boston Medical Center’s Geriatrics Services. She cofounded the Boston nonprofit Hearth, Inc., which works to eliminate homelessness among the elderly, in 1991. The organization operates seven residences throughout the city; one, Anna Bissonnette House, in the South End, is named after her.  

After she retired, Bissonnette continued to teach workshops and accompany students to vaccination clinics. “The students are what keep me going,” she says, “because they’re out there doing something, making a real contribution to the health-care system.”

During previous falls, BCAI students administered only seasonal flu vaccinations, but the arrival of the H1N1 vaccine has kept them busy throughout the winter. Earlier this month, they helped to vaccinate more than 2,000 BU students at clinics sponsored by Student Health Services.

“Now that people are no longer panicking,” Bissonnette says, “demand has dropped, and we have an H1N1 vaccine surplus. I expect that come spring we’ll be washing windows with it.”

She pauses. “I’m no missionary,” she says, “but I truly believe that one day — and I hope that day isn’t too far off — we’ll focus on keeping people well instead of just caring for them after they’re sick.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @vickywaltz.

6 Comments

6 Comments on A South End Health-Care Pioneer

  • Denise Rubin on 02.22.2010 at 1:21 pm

    south-end health care project

    Never had the pleasure of knowing Anna or her work,…
    that being said, through the words and eyes of this article am able to fully appreciate the caring and humor with which she approaches life’s opportunities and challenges….really looking forward to future articles from this talented writer.

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2010 at 4:47 pm

    Lovely article! Thanks for writing this!

  • Anonymous on 02.23.2010 at 3:24 pm

    South End Health Care Project

    You’re right, this lady “does rock”. (See V Waltz’s twitter comment) Wonderfully written story about an interesting and caring woman. I enjoy BU Today articles and its talented staff writers.

  • P O'Reilly on 03.02.2010 at 10:22 am

    Anna

    The article missed one part of Anna”s “missionary” work – recruting anyone who is willing to help her achieve her vision of a better world. I speak with the experience of being willingly recruited by Anna almost 30 years ago. What a joy!

  • Steve Horwitz on 03.02.2010 at 10:46 am

    Anna

    Wonderful article about a truly remarkable person. I’m proud to call her a friend.

  • Baba on 11.29.2010 at 1:06 am

    A true friend of all human being! A mother of hundreds & thousands sick & needy! I pay homage to Revered Anna Bissonnette and also homage to Vicky Waltz for bringing her to light, up to us. In a time when people are putting heart and soul to achieve a few coins more than others. But they forget that there are such fields to do more than others. It rewards in two way; now it brings love & respect and it brings bliss in heaven after death.
    Padam from
    http://www.worldoffemale.com

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