After helping children around the world, UCLA Health nurse finds international humanitarian opportunity at home
‘For sure, this is the highlight of my career,’ says Chai-Chih Huang, director of pediatric nursing.
Fifteen years ago, Chai-Chih Huang, MSN, RN, began spending her vacation time volunteering with humanitarian medical missions across the globe. She’s been to Nepal, China, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ecuador.
Huang, UCLA Health’s director of pediatric nursing, loves the international work so much she intends to dedicate herself to it full time when she retires.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to trips abroad in 2020. And then came 2021 – and in a surprise development, Huang found herself working full time on an international humanitarian mission right here at home.
In April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tapped UCLA Health to provide medical care for unaccompanied migrant children from Central America at a new federal shelter at the Long Beach Convention Center. In less than 24 hours, UCLA Health workers set up an urgent care clinic, pharmacy, medical exam rooms and a COVID-19 isolation unit inside the empty convention center, along with a secure computer network to establish and track health records for every child.
Huang has been overseeing nursing efforts at the emergency-intake site since it opened, caring for the more than 700 children who have passed through the center.
“It’s amazing: We went from zero workload, zero protocol, to the robust infrastructure we have now,” she says. “That’s what makes me so proud of UCLA. For sure, this is the highlight of my career, that I get to experience all this.”
A native of Taiwan who spent several years living in Ecuador before becoming a pediatric nurse at UCLA Health in 1996, Huang has long been drawn to working with children.
“Their energy is just so different,” she says. “They’re very resilient. They can be upset one moment, but five minutes later, they’re fine and you can be best friends again. You can play with them and you can be silly and they play along with you. You can see in their eyes that they’re so sincere and genuine.”
Dedicated to children
Huang connects with this natural innocence and sense of wonder so deeply, she wanted to bring her skills to areas of great need, inspiring her to seek international volunteer opportunities.
“I truly believe there should be no suffering in children, just around the world,” she says. “The children in Syria, the children in those countries where there are wars, for me, it’s so heartbreaking. I think that’s why I’m so committed to being a pediatric nurse and really to help children around the world. That has been my wish and my aspiration.”
Huang’s love of children and pediatric nursing also has inspired and shaped her career. After working as a bedside nurse for six years, she returned to school and became a clinical nurse specialist, a teaching position that allowed her to help train future nurses. A few years later, her supervisor invited her to apply for a unit director position.
“I struggled,” Huang says. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t really like to be an administrator. My passion is to be at the bedside with the nurses, to do rounds and to make sure that the patients are safe, and just that connection with families and with nurses. That’s what I do.’”
Huang’s supervisor, however, convinced her she could have an even greater impact on nurses and patients as an administrator. Now, Huang oversees pediatric nursing for UCLA Health at both the Santa Monica and Westwood medical centers.
An international mission at home
Fluent in Spanish after so many years living in Ecuador, Huang is able to connect deeply with the children at the Long Beach Convention Center emergency-intake site, some as young as 4 and many of whom are homesick and scared.
“Knowing the culture in Central and South American countries, I kind of know how they feel and can be sensitive in terms of where they’re coming from, and I’m able to read their facial expressions,” she says. With Huang, kids feel safe enough to say, “I miss my parents” or “I don’t like the food here.”
In fact, the urgent care center where Huang works at the emergency-intake site has become a particularly popular place because it stocks snacks such as chips, pretzels, bananas and apples. “They’ll come in and say, ‘My stomach hurts. Can I have that snack?’” Huang recounts with a smile. “They’re very smart.”
In recognition of Huang’s work, she recently spent an afternoon as a “Laker for a Day,” virtually touring the team’s training facilities with Lakers guard Alex Caruso. The visit included cameos and well wishes from players Anthony Davis, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Kyle Kuzma and Andre Drummond.
“I love Alex. He’s such a genuine, sincere person,” Huang says. “It was such an experience to be able to connect with him on that personal level.”
A future of service
Huang makes that same kind of personal connection with the children she cares for and the nurses she inspires. Though she plans to continue working at the Long Beach Convention Center as long as it remains open, Huang also has an eye on her future.
On one of her missions to Congo, she learned about the plight of children in Zambia, where those born HIV-positive are often abandoned. Huang dreams of opening an orphanage there.
“When I retire, the first country I’ll go to is Zambia,” she says, adding that she’ll seek help from her UCLA Health colleagues to make her dream come true.
“I’m planting the seeds,” Huang says. “Like, we’re going to open an orphanage, we’re going to open a clinic, and the clinic is going to say UCLA. That’s going to be the first clinic in Africa with the UCLA brand name.”
Even with all Huang does for children, she says they actually do more for her.
“I’ve gained so much from doing all this,” she says. “Children show me their resilience, so I can be resilient. They show me their tenacity, so I can be like them. More than I’m something to them, they mean so much to me. It’s just so hard to describe, but I think they really are the ones who are my teacher.”
Learn more about the Humanitarian Care for Unaccompanied Children.