Mediterranean: Being a nurse on board the Aquarius
Suzel Wiegert is a nurse from Engadine, NSW, who recently returned from her seventh field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Your most recent assignment with MSF was on a boat in the Mediterranean. Could you tell us about the project?
Earlier this year I spent three months on board the Aquarius, which is a search and rescue vessel run by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF in the Mediterranean. The Aquarius patrols international waters off the Libyan coast to rescue men, women and children fleeing Libya, often on small and overcrowded wooden and rubber boats that have little chance of completing the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.
"We were treating people for a wide array of conditions including fuel burns, drowning, dehydration and hypothermia from exposure on the rubber or wooden boats, injuries and wounds sustained from the violence and torture in Libya and chronic conditions worsened due to a lack of access to health care"
What did your role on board the Aquarius involve?
There are three teams on the Aquarius: the maritime team looking after the operations of the boat, the rescue team conducting rescue operations and the medical team, run by MSF, which focuses on treating the people rescued. Although they are very different tasks, during my time on board we very much worked all together, learning from each other in the process.
Our medical team consisted of four people: a doctor, a midwife, a focal point for the vulnerable cases, and myself as nurse and medical focal point. My role was to manage the medical supply, order pharmacy stock, serve as the communication point with the medical coordinator, and to provide medical aid to the people we rescued. We were treating people for a wide array of conditions including fuel burns, drowning, dehydration and hypothermia from exposure on the rubber or wooden boats, injuries and wounds sustained from the violence and torture in Libya and chronic conditions worsened due to a lack of access to health care inside Libya, in countries of origin or along the journeys. We were also providing care for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
What have you found most rewarding working for MSF?
In each of my assignments and in each of the countries I’ve worked in, whether that be in Democratic Republic of Congo or in Iraq, working with MSF’s local staff has really stood out for me. They are always welcoming and eager to learn, as well as willing to share their knowledge.
Despite the cultural differences, I have formed strong relationships with many of my colleagues. I remember when I was on assignment in Yemen, where the social norms are very conservative, my interpreter gave me a huge hug in front of the team on the day I left. For me, it was a very significant moment that showed the depth of the relationship we developed over my time in the project.
"Leaving the project is difficult – usually, you have invested much of your time and energy, and it is difficult not knowing how the project will progress."
What is most challenging about working in the field?
Leaving the project is difficult – usually, you have invested much of your time and energy, and it is difficult not knowing how the project will progress. You meet and form relations with a lot of different people and it is always hard to say goodbye when you know there is a good chance you will never see them again.
How have you developed on a professional or personal level?
With each field experience I’ve learnt to become more flexible, to work with minimal resources and to be more tolerant. I enjoy hearing people’s stories. I’ve also learnt to communicate. If you don’t agree with something, it always helps to talk about it with your colleagues, and to try to find a constructive solution.
After seven field assignments, what keeps you coming back?
I love this job. It is always different. I am always learning new skills, and in turn love sharing my knowledge with my colleagues. It gives me the opportunity to travel, learn about other cultures, and meet very interesting people – working with MSF broadens your horizons.