By Ifunanya Ikhile, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health
In this time of global crisis, natural disasters, failing health systems, rising violent crime, and spreading disease, the world needs heroes. Storytelling, an Irish tradition, was used as powerful tool tonight to show how health workers around the world are everyday heroes. Health workers save lives often at the risk of theirs, they give hope to communities and the world at large. Six health workers from different countries, cultures, and contexts tell compelling stories of how, by simply ‘doing their job’, lives have been saved.
Miatta Gbanya, a Liberian who has worked in conflict zones in her own country and the Congo, found these experiences useful one night. While being driven in her work van on a dark, lonely road, a pregnant young lady by the side of the road desperately flagged the car. She was in labour. There was no health facility close by. Miatta, the driver, and a male colleague had to take delivery of the baby in the back of the van using gloves from a first aid kit, light from a phone, and Miatta’s shawl as a blanket. They were inevitably covered in blood thereafter, but were only concerned about the life and safety of mother and child. This was a week before the Ebola epidemic. Baby Miatta was born safely that day, and now as a three year-old attends school.
Hay Mar Khine, a city girl and fresh medical school graduate, told her story of performing surgery without electricity and equipment in a remote village on the Myanmar-Thai border. She was posted there as the only medical doctor serving a large population due to a shortage of health professionals. Hay Mar was more accustomed to well-equipped city hospitals, but here she was alone with a 35-year-old woman in labour, and a baby in distress with dropping heart rate. She tried to wait it out but knew the baby may die, so called in a few hands and a military doctor from the camp to help with the surgery, using head torchlights. After delivery, she was torn between a not-crying baby and suturing the mother to avoid bleeding. A moment later, to Hay Mar’s relief, the baby began crying. Mother and baby survived and everyone was happy.
Mariah Valenzuela, a Mexican immigrant foster child who was teased and isolated as a child, shared how she turned this experience around and now helps immigrant and foster children facing a similar situation to her own. Mariah migrated to a disadvantaged community in Phoenix, Arizona, mid-summer 1979, where other children mocked her for her accent, because she hadn’t tasted pizza, and other such things. By the age of 14, she volunteered at the community centre and has since become a community health worker, helping the same community and giving hope to children and their families. Little Savannah was one of the kids inspired by Mariah. Today she is in college studying to be a social worker. Mariah’s passion is evident, “I want to be able to give parents some hope – that one day their children will be successful.”
Paul Nolan, an Irish cardiac physiologist, received comfort form the words of a fellow medical colleague when he lost a patient. Paul derived joy from seeing patients who came in gasping and in distress go home healthy and ruddy. He did his best for every patient and had so many success stories, but on this day, a patient came in and not long after passed out. Paul was confused; all his knowledge flew out of his head. The man died and Paul was convinced he had missed something. A senior doctor came in 20 minutes later and examined the patient. Afterwards, he said, “Paul, you didn’t miss a thing, you did all you were supposed to do.” Those words meant the world to Paul, and that night he learnt the importance of being kind to fellow health care workers; for Paul, “We need to be kinder to one another.”
Marjorie Makukula, a senior Zambian nurse, was inspired to create a community of support for other nurses to improve their confidence in dealing with difficult situations. She shared her story of interviewing a male nurse in another facility. During the interview he seemed very fidgety. She then discovered he was dealing with a fairly common case of pre-birth bleeding, but didn’t know what to do. Marjorie and her colleague intervened, stabilized the patient, called a gynaecologist, and eventually an ambulance arrived to move the patient to another facility. Marjorie realized that nurses panicked in certain situations, not realizing they could call for support from other medical professionals. This inspired a WhatsApp group for nurses’ support, where they can ask questions and seek assistance concerning medical issues. Many nurses have become more confident as a result, and provide a better quality of care to their patients. For Marjorie, “Support for health care workers can mean the difference between life and death” for the patient.
Rushaana Gallow faces death everyday trying to save lives working in the red zones of Cape flats, South Africa. Rushaana has been shot at, groped, and assaulted by violent residents. She has been ill-treated by patients’ families, and watched a 4 year-old girl die. But, she still goes to work every day in her ambulance to save lives. She is a paramedic, and that is what she will remain. During this presentation, she proudly wore her uniform as she described the horrors endured to save lives in the red zones.
We learn from these heroes that sacrifice and hard choices are a big part of being a health worker. They, as well as a participant from Malawi speaking briefly during the Q&A session, have one thing in common; they love their job. Their reward is the smile on the faces of the patients, the fulfilment of helping others, giving hope, being part of something much bigger than yourself.
November 13th 2017
Ifunanya is a Pharmacist, a passionate educator, has worked as a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria for four years, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, Division of Pharmacy Practice and Policy. Her current goal is to improve Pharmacy Education in Lower and Lower-Middle Income countries through a needs-based approach.
She has acquired broad professional experience spanning Oncology with Pfizer, Community Pharmacy, Urban and Rural Hospitals, Specialized Pharmaceutical Care, Pharmacy Administration, Industrial Pharmacy, Charity Organizations, and Academia. She loves reading, and meeting people.