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Health care workers without borders

July 26, 2004 -- Carol Goar's column in today's Toronto Star, "Miracles amid misery in Sudan," recounts the recent experience of Toronto nurse Nancy Dale as part of a Medicines Sans Frontieres team in Darfur, where government-backed militias have reportedly "slaughtered an estimated 30,000 men and raped and brutalized their wives and children," driving more than one million from their homes and creating a staggering humanitarian crisis. The powerful column illustrates the work nurses do as part of health care teams on humanitarian missions in ravaged nations, missions that the media and even the aid community itself too often suggests are entirely the work of a certain other group of health care professionals.

Dale, a 10-year ICU veteran, arrived in one of the camps surrounding a remote Darfur town and "burst into tears...I'd never done that as a nurse. No words can describe how hideous the conditions are." Dale's job was to "run a medical clinic coupled with a feeding centre for severely malnourished children." Many of the children reached her clinic close to death: dehydrated, suffering from diarrhea, chest infections, and measles. Many of their mothers were traumatized, having been raped and having watched their relatives slaughtered. Few men between 20 and 50 came to the clinic, since "a whole generation of breadwinners had been wiped out." Dale worked 12 hours days for three straight months, with two half days off, caring for patients suffering from bullet wounds and sexual abuse, building trust and teaching 40 local staff, many refugees themselves, to change dressings, distribute medicines, and perform important clinic administrative tasks. (This focus on capacity-building is a hallmark of good nursing and good development work.) The children, who at first "barely looked human," began to revive.

Dale's team, which initially included only her, a physician, and "logistician," grew to seven, and she emphasizes its diversity, with members from France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Japan coming together to get the job done. Despite all the hard work, at the time Dale left the camp still lacked latrines, the killing continued in the villages and the outside world seemed "unaware of the immensity of the crisis." The piece notes that Dale and her team saved "[p]robably hundreds" of lives during her time there. Note the emphasis of Dale and the column itself--the health care team saved lives, not one particular type of professional all by him or herself.

Dale is now doing contract work back in Toronto, waiting for her next Medicins Sans Frontieres assignment and telling Canadians about the "humanitarian catastrophe" she witnessed, in the hope that they will provide more assistance to those trying to help. Dale says that, despite being "overwhelmed every day" in Darfur, she would return "in a heartbeat."

See Carol Goar's column "Miracles amid misery in Sudan" in the July 26, 2004 edition of the Toronto Star.

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