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South Sudan: “It was the most humbling moment of my life and yes, I cried.”

03 May 2016

New Zealander Jacqueline Gowers is a self-confessed adventurer. “I am someone who wants to be part of this world, connecting with as many people and cultures as I can,” she said. “It teaches me a lot about myself.” Jackie works in Australia with Aboriginal people in rural and remote areas. She also works with asylum seekers, providing basic health care – skills and experience that have transferred easily to her work as a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières.

Jackie’s most recent placement was as the Nurse Manager for the outpatient department and the ambulatory therapeutic feeding centre in Lankien, South Sudan. While it was a pivotal role, it was also one that gave Jackie pause. “My initial thought was ‘Hmmm…do I really want to go there?’ I was a little reticent, and this was based solely on the civil wars that have decimated the country. I didn’t know if I would actually be able to handle it. Now, after nine months of very hard work, I look back and think ‘What a blast!’ I learnt so much about life, people, culture – it was an incredible experience,” she said.

“You wonder how it can be possible with all the wealth in this world that beautiful young children can die each and every day from a preventable illness”

A typical day for Jackie started with an exercise class in a big tukul (a conical thatched hut common to eastern and north-eastern Africa). “It was nauseating but so worth it as it helps give you energy for the busy day ahead,” Jackie said. Breakfast would be with the team, followed by the daily morning meeting and then off to the outpatient department and feeding centre to begin the day. While it sounds fairly relaxed, there were certainly ‘other days’. “A more difficult day starts with running to the hospital while being on call, trying to resuscitate a child with severe malaria which doesn’t work and you see the child die,” Jackie said. “That’s a terrible day and you wonder how it can be possible with all the wealth in this world that beautiful young children can die each and every day from a preventable illness?’”

With her desire to learn about and experience different cultures, Jackie may need to be careful about what she wishes for. The ‘goat story’ illustrates this well. “I had been working really hard, and was feeling quite tired. I was near our admin office and all of a sudden about six of my staff turned up with this very cute goat. They gave me the rope tied around its neck and said ‘Gowers, this is for you!’ My brain was still a bit foggy and it just didn’t click. Then I saw the handwritten note taped to the goat (yes, taped!). They were thanking me for my hard work and the goat was to show their appreciation! It was the most humbling moment of my life and yes, I cried.”

Jackie is now back in Australia, focussing on her work here but planning to continue studying later this year in Amsterdam. But will she return to the field with Médecins Sans Frontières? “For sure!” she said. “I will definitely be back.” But while her next mission may not be to South Sudan, it is a country where Médecins Sans Frontières is quite entrenched. The reasons are obvious, according to Jackie: “Because it saves thousands of lives, full stop. What could be more critical than that?”

 

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