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Working in the war in Darfur: a nurse's story

A sorrowful face in Darfur
Suffering in Western Sudan
photo credits: Lisa Blaker

Lisa Blaker from Auckland, New Zealand, worked on the Intensive Care Unit of Auckland's Middlemore Public Hospital. After years of practicing nursing in New Zealand, she joined the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres — Doctors without Borders in 2002.

Since she has worked in many countries, including Sri Lanka, Sudan and Iraq. Pondering her experiences in western Sudan, she wrote her first book "Heart of Darfur" which is now receiving critical acclaim.

On a recent home-leave, Lisa told Te Waha Nui Online that "if no one acts, the Darfur conflict will continue until the entire region is 'cleared' of ethnic minorities."  This is a subject that Lisa feels passionately about.

Also according to Te Waha Nui Online, Lisa has been one of only three New Zealanders working in the Darfur region. Lisa comments: "Whole villages are being destroyed by the Government-backed militia, leaving the people of Darfur frightened and with no security."  A number of sources, including the United Nations, cite figures of 200,000 deaths in the conflict since 2003. Says Lisa: "No one knows the exact figure. I asked people who came to our clinics, and they didn't know either. Most had lost friends and family at some time during their struggle for survival. Some were still alive, hiding in the bush, some had made it into camps for the displaced, but many were unaccounted for. They had no idea whether friends and family were alive or dead."  Lisa's book was recently reviewed by Nick Clooney, father of George Clooney: http://www.clooneystudio.com/news/november07.html

by Lisa Blaker *exclusive to nightingaledeclaration.net

What better way to start a journey than with an open mind? I did and it has been an extraordinary journey. Wonderful, exhausting and life changing.

When I qualified as a nurse in 1992 my expectations were of travel, learning and being able to really care for people. The tears, frustration, desert heat, mountain passes and the endless streams of patients were still in the future. Looking back over the last 16 years I feel weary, but I wouldn’t change a thing. We are shaped and polished by our failures as much as our successes. And I like my shape these days.

Lisa Blaker transferring a critically ill patient

A brief encounter with another nurse in 1998 changed the course of my nursing career. I was sitting on the deck of a ferry, on the way to Zanzibar, feeling rather sorry for myself. Sea sickness had left me exhausted. Karen, a Belgian nurse, was also on the deck, on her way to a holiday from her work in South Sudan with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). When she spoke about her work it was with such passion and conviction.

Here was someone who was standing up for her beliefs, trying to make a difference in the world. Instead of giving into the helplessness and guilt that many of us feel when we look at the world, she was stepping forward to help. I remember looking up at her and thinking “I want to be like you, I want to make a difference”. And so began my journey.

In 2002, I started my first of three missions with MSF. Any misapprehensions I had about humanitarian workers were swiftly swept away. They are not angels or saints, neither more courageous nor compassionate than the rest of us. They are hard working, persistent and creative people, just like any of us who follow our hearts. In Sri Lanka, our team lived in tiny mud huts, cycled along sandy paths to work and we spent our days trying to teach and care for the patients in a hospital with no running water, two hours of electricity a day, and with goats and dogs wandering the corridors. Tarantulas, landmines and armed soldiers only added to the challenge.

It was my last trip with MSF during 2005 and 2006 that pushed me to the limit of my skills and inner resources. Working for nine months in Darfur, Western Sudan, challenged my beliefs in goodness, shook my assumptions about fairness and my ability to make a difference in the world. But the sense of purpose and passion, drive and determination I had seen in the Belgian nurse on our way to Zanzibar became part of my own life.

Working in the war in Darfur was the most brutal experience of my life. Trying to listen, help and treat the thousands who we met every day, week and month, was exhausting. The war is still crushing them today. But any practical nurse would know where to start – with one. One patient, one family and one day at a time.

Those of us who have experienced Darfur have come away humbled by the people who survive there. The stories, friends, challenges and frustrations of life are spun together in my book, Heart of Darfur, to be released in February 2008. Far from being courageous or brave, extraordinary or fortunate, I was simply being a nurse. My heart still aches, a year after leaving Darfur. While others turn the page of their newspaper and ignore the war, I still hear the women cry and hold their children as they die. I can’t forget them. The world is in a dreadful mess and chaos abounds. But our patients and friends still deserve our compassion and time.

Our world needs more nurses who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, whatever that is. For me it is equality, justice and health care for all. These are not grand ideals when you are kneeling in front of your patient in the sand, brushing the flies from their wounds. They are goals we fight for every day. As nurses we have the skills and compassion to make a difference in the world. Whether we do it in inner city hospitals or in sun-baked mud huts. Perhaps someone else can step forward to take my place while I rest awhile. But please don’t assume that it will be ‘someone else’. Could it be you?

We are shaped and polished by our challenges and failures and successes. I stepped out of the shadows of my doubts and my fear of failure to live with passion and purpose, standing up for others. And I am a better nurse for it. I could ask no more than for you to try to do the same. Perhaps one day we can share our stories, with laughter and tears, as we celebrate our journey, saying “at least we tried”.







21st Century Nightingales:
In Their Own Words

All of these stories were first published online during the 2010 International Year of the Nurse / Florence Nightingale Centennial. They were chosen to feature how nurses have become 21st Century Nightingales, in many settings and practice approaches. Around the world, they are achieving and advocating for the 8 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

These stories are reprinted here with permission from the original website at www.2010IYNurse.net. The MDG logos used were created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for everyone's use worldwide, to increase widespread understanding about the importance of these Goals for all of humanity.