Catherine Flanigan, from Wellington, New Zealand, shares her experience working as a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
What led you to work with MSF?
I’ve always wanted to work with a humanitarian organisation – that was a big part of my motivation in becoming a nurse. I had always admired MSF, particularly the way the organisation bears witness and draws international attention to situations, and provides medical care in such difficult contexts.
“Although the medical needs I see in this line of work can be very different to my previous jobs, much of my nursing role is the same.”
Your first assignment was in the Protection of Civilians camp for displaced persons in Bentiu, South Sudan. What is MSF doing in Bentiu, and what did your role there involve?
MSF has been working in the Bentiu camp since 2014. People moved there fleeing violence in the area. Intended as a temporary solution, there are now 115,000 people living in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in an area that used to be a swamp. MSF operates a 160-bed hospital in the camp that focuses on providing emergency medical care.
As Nursing Activity Manager in Bentiu, I supervised the outpatient department and the emergency room in the hospital, as well as the malaria clinics in the camp, which we set up to treat people with uncomplicated malaria who didn’t need to be admitted to the hospital.
Could you describe any moments that stand out for you from that assignment?
My favourite times were when we would play music and have a dance party outside the malnutrition wards. Psychosocial care and stimulation is a critical part of helping babies and children recover from malnutrition, as well as being fun. It’s also enjoyable for the siblings and parents, who sometimes have to stay on the ward for weeks. It was great to see kids getting some energy back after being so unwell and joining in the dancing. I also loved working with the South Sudanese staff – they are so dedicated to helping their community in the camp.
“I’ve learnt from amazing nurses over the years working in paediatrics, child health and emergency care in New Zealand. Working in a general paediatric ward was invaluable experience as it exposes you to a little bit of everything.”
What did you find most challenging?
We were faced with rapidly changing health needs: the malaria season was followed by watery diarrhoea, then rabies, then hepatitis E. On top of this, there were high rates of TB, HIV and malnutrition, as well as poor mental health from the insecurity and violence. In a place of such high need, it is difficult to decide how to use the limited resources you have available. It was also challenging treating people who had suffered violence, with horrific injuries like nothing I’d ever seen in New Zealand. I cannot imagine what their situation would be if MSF was not there.
How did your skills from previous jobs prepare you to work as a nurse with MSF?
I’ve learnt from amazing nurses over the years working in paediatrics, child health and emergency care in New Zealand. Working in a general paediatric ward was invaluable experience as it exposes you to a little bit of everything. I would say it’s impossible to be fully prepared to work as a nurse with MSF – you can never really know what you’ll come up against day-to-day. But although the medical needs I see in this line of work can be very different to my previous jobs, much of my nursing role is the same: as well as the hands-on clinical aspect, your focus is on making sure patients receive health education, and that they feel safe, respected and cared for.
What advice would you give to other nurses considering this work?
Get as much work experience in different areas as you can. Emergency care, operating theatre nursing, surgery and paediatrics experience are all useful. Talk to other nurses who’ve done this kind of work. There are also some great postgraduate courses you can take in tropical and infectious diseases, either in New Zealand or overseas. I would definitely recommend working with MSF – it is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad to be here. I can’t imagine doing anything else.