Fremantle nurse on the frontline

03THINK luker msf bulls dowryPHILIP LUKER is a journalist with Médecins Sans Frontière (Doctors Without Borders). In this REFLECTIONS he reports on the experiences of Fremantle emergency nurse KATY BROWN.

A DINKA tribesman (196cm—6ft 5in) offered Fremantle emergency nurse Katy Brown six bulls as a dowry if she married him, then changed his mind because he said she was—at 26—too old.

The Dinka tribe in South Sudan is the tallest race on earth and many girls marry at 15.

Nurse Brown was not distraught about the withdrawn offer as her boyfriend Danny, a Spanish logistician, was with her in South Sudan. The pair had also travelled together on two other emergency Médecins Sans Frontières projects during 2012—in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

South Sudan, DRC and Chad are among the world’s poorest countries and Nurse Brown worked up to 19 hours a day, seven days a week, roughing it. At Agok in South Sudan she helped deliver nutrition, measles and deworming medication, Vitamin A and soap to 15,000 children. She lived in a tent with three other international staff. Outside were a pit latrine, a water container with a tap for drinking and a tin shed for showering. Food for staff was mainly rice, lentils and goat’s meat, or goat’s head soup.

Agok is near an area disputed between South Sudan and Sudan, since South Sudan became independent in July 2011. Conflict between the two countries continues to bubble.

There were happy moments. When she and her small emergency team visited a community leader to discuss helping his people, he asked if they could help a woman in his village who was very sick.

“Lying inside a small tukul (hut) was a woman aged about 60, hot, with a fast heart rate, in a lot of pain and clearly dehydrated,” Nurse Brown said.

“I walked back to the car to get some equipment. It was a definitive Médecins Sans Frontières moment. I was walking in searing heat through a  burnt out village, in the middle of South Sudan, wearing my MSF t-shirt and armed only with a thermometer, paracetamol, water, and my hands.

“The woman’s temperature was very high at 39.7. I gave her paracetamol to reduce it and worked out that she had not urinated since the day before, had liver pain and signs of anaemia. She vomited most of the way back to the hospital in the car. When we got there, the paracetamol had reduced her temperature to 37.4, but it was found she also had malaria, another infection and dehydration. She was treated and when I went to see her next day she was so happy and grateful.

“I am quite sure she would not have survived if we had left her in the tukul.”

In the food distribution and vaccination line, many children wore old rice sacks as dresses, or whatever they could turn into clothes, and broken shoes or no shoes. Some were blind, some had serious skin infections and nearly all looked terrified of Nurse Brown because they had never seen a white person before.

On one of her first nights in the MSF compound in Agok, she was woken by a gun shot, not unusual to hear.

“Sometimes it’s an accident, sometimes it’s a dog being shot, sometimes it’s an army but this time it was a man shooting his wife,” she said.

“She was taken straight to the operating theatre with a shattered pelvis and bleeding badly. Her husband was there to see if he was a blood match. Only family can donate blood in that society. He was not a match and she bled to death.”

Dealing with death and destruction was a day to day experience.

“On trips to distribute food and medicine to villages, we drove through the graveyard of events, through villages that had been torched and looted—deserted, desolate areas once the scene of violence and panic. I have never seen anything like it.

“Not all the villagers had fled, so we made the journeys to reach children in need, trapped in a no-man’s land surrounded by mines.”

Nurse Brown had some happy, heart-warming times with children: “One day, when I was finishing a distribution in a village, I sat under a tree in the shade. Soon lots of children appeared, staring at me and nervously smiling. I began to copy one child’s movements. Then all joined in. This built their confidence, enough for one to touch me, then run away screaming. Another child put her arm against mine to compare them.

“Then they started pulling up my trousers to see if my legs were white, too, and squealed with excitement when they found they were even whiter.

“In the distribution line, children clutched on to whatever treasure they had found as a toy—the nozzle of a spray bottle, a piece of string, a broken lighter, an arrow, or a bullet shell (held by a child of three).”

Nurse Brown had wanted to work for Médecins Sans Frontières since her days as a student nurse.

“For me it was important to work for a neutral organisation that delivers help to those who need it most—the world’s most vulnerable—with no judgement. Many times, I looked around at the people and thought the world has forgotten them.”

Nurse Brown emigrated from England in 2008 and previously worked as an emergency department nurse at Royal Perth Hospital. She plans to undergo an MSF team management course this month, then go on another project for the organisation.

For more information about MSF, phone 1300 13 60 61 or visit the website, http://www.msf.org.au.

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