West Ender Kate White’s work with Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF) has taken her to some of the most troubled and disadvantaged parts of the world.
Before joining MSF two years ago, Kate worked as a nurse at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, but says humanitarian work was always something she wanted to do. While some new recruits wait up to 10 months for their first job, Kate found herself on an emergency mission to Libya just two weeks after she completed her MSF training.
“In the first couple of months, there was a lot of craziness going on in Libya but we couldn’t get through the border,” she says. “Both the coastal border with Tunisia and the one further south were still patrolled by Gaddafi soldiers, so in that time we were doing stuff in refugee camps in Tunisia, activities along the border and organising the medical evacuation boats to Misrata … when the southern border opened and the rebels took it we went in, and I spent three months inside.”
Most recently Kate has been working at a rural hospital in South Sudan where she spent nine months as a medical team leader, directly managing more than 40 staff.
She says one of the most difficult parts of the job was the limit to what they could do for patients due to lack of facilities and equipment; something you do not have to face in Brisbane. “We didn’t have any x-ray, we had no way to ventilate a patient … here you’ve fancy Intensive Care Units and beautiful machinery and you can do so much more … So many times we came across patients who had cancers of various forms but we couldn’t treat it. There are no cancer services anywhere in South Sudan, no chemotherapy, no radiotherapy. There’s nothing you can do.”
Outside of work, living conditions too were very basic — mud huts, squat toilets, no hot water and a lot of canned food. “We would get a plane in every 10 days with fresh food but it wasn’t a huge variety. It just meant you got some onion, cabbage, pumpkin, tomatoes and a few things like that, because you couldn’t buy anything in the market. You could buy onions but they were the equivalent of almost $3 US per onion.”
There are of course things that Kate misses about her home suburb when she’s away. “I miss this,” she says in the surroundings of BlackStar. “The café lifestyle in West End, meeting up with friends and having coffee, and the Greek food. Seriously, when I was in South Sudan I would dream about Greek food.”
But with all its challenges, Kate really enjoys what she does and says she has no plans to give it up any time soon. “One of my friends asked me a couple of days ago, would I come back to Australia and settle down to a normal job and I don’t know if I could do that. I just don’t think I’m ready for a normal job.”
Words by Leah Carri | Images supplied and Darlia Argyris