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Interview – Humanitarian Nursing

I had the opportunity to interview Sue Averill RN, BSN, MBA, CEN who is the president of One Nurse At A Time.  The goal of the organization is this: “to reach out to nurses and help them get involved in the humanitarian and volunteer arena.”

Sue is a 32 year veteran of Emergency Room nursing.  She also worked in the business world as a manager for a cruise line and in that role created the medical department for ships, designed ship hospitals, hired staff, and wrote protocols.  For the past 13 years she’s done volunteer humanitarian nursing all around the world.

Sue started in the ER as a senior for her student practicum in 1979.  “Those were the days before certification, before ACLS or PALS when the only ‘specialty’ areas of nursing were cardiac, surgery and pediatrics.  I thought doing a semester in the ER would give me a well rounded view of all aspects of nursing and then I could choose.  But I fell in love with ER and stayed.”

As a volunteer humanitarian nurse, Sue works for Doctors Without Borders and other non profit organizations as nurse, Medical Coordinator (program in charge), or Project Coordinator.  Since starting as a humanitarian in 1999, she’s worked mostly in subSaharan Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America.  She’s done about 25 missions so far and has loved most.

Tell me about your missions:  how long is a typical mission?

Surgical and teaching missions are typically 1-2 weeks.  Disaster response will usually be a month or more at a time.  MSF/Doctors Without Borders missions are minimum 6 months, although I’ve gone as a “troubleshooter” for 1-4 months. When I first started in 1999, I went for 1 week trips.  In 2004 I went to Liberia for 1 month and thought that was nearly impossible to be gone from home for so long and work so intensely.  Later that year, I committed to 6 months in Darfur with MSF and did four 6 month missions back to back.

What do you do during a mission?

On the surgical missions, I normally work PACU (Recovery Room).  When I’m on MSF missions I’m normally the medical coordinator – this is the highest level medical position as it’s the person overall in charge of all the projects in a given country.  This position sets policy and sets the medical objectives for the field teams.  I’ve also worked as a field nurse and project coordinator.

How many other nurses are with you? 

On surgical teams, there’s usually a scrub and circulating nurse, perhaps one other PACU nurse.  Most organizations try to use local staff to work alongside to share out knowledge and the workload.  In MSF, the number of nurses varies by size of the project.  Most I’ve worked have been just one nurse per project.

What’s been a favorite place to go?

I absolutely love Guatemala.

What’s the worst/scariest thing you’ve seen?

I stumbled into a war zone in south Sudan and triaged and treated 100 wounded soldiers.  We were in the area to help civilians displaced by the resurgence of armed conflict between northern and southern troops, but was faced with immediate livesaving needs of these individuals.

Is there an example of something you’ve done where you saw an immediate benefit? 

Probably the difficult delivery situations stand out in my mind the most.  On hands and knees helping women with troubled labor in dark huts with dirt floors.  I saw some successful outcomes, and some not.  One of my biggest joys was taking lay population in our remote village in Darfur and training them to become medical personnel.  It was an amazing transformation to be part of.

What would someone who’s interested in humanitarian work need to do to get started?

Take that leap of faith!  Know your skills are adequate to the task, steel yourself for leaving home, comfort, and everything you love – know that this will be a life changing experience!  Find an organization that fits your beliefs and skill base (see “Organizations” on this page).  Learn as much as you can about the country, people, society, culture, and language of where you plan to go.  Research common diseases in the area.  Stay flexible and have fun!

What frustrates you about your job?

Politics.  It’s there in hospitals, the humanitarian world, business.

Was there any extra training besides on-the-job learning that you were required to complete? 

In humanitarian work, I’ve done many tropical medicine courses, security training, infectious disease, etc.

Curious to read more personal accounts from people who have volunteered abroad?  You should definitely check out Nurses Beyond Borders, which is an anthology of international nursing stories.  I myself am about halfway through the book – if you’re more into electronic reading, you can pick up the Kindle version at Amazon.com: Nurses Beyond Borders: True Stories of Heroism and Healing Around the World. (affiliate link)

Thanks to Sue for her insights about humanitarian nursing!

If you are or know of a nurse that works in a nontraditional setting and are interested in being interviewed, email me at codeblogrn@gmail.com.  My post about this project and a list of interviews done so far is linked here.





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It would be my DREAM to be a humanitarian nurse! I would love to retire early so I could travel somewhere every other month to provide services for underserved areas. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have felt like for her to triage 100 soldiers! Such a terribly feeling when you know they all need your help.

The Nurses Beyond Borders book sounds like a definite read. I know what I am getting someone for their Kindle. I find it hard to imagine anything better than doing humanitarian nursing.

Great interview. I love medical mission work myself, although have only gone on one week trips, so far. I think every nurse should go at least once. I don’t think I ever work that hard at home and I know I am rarely as fulfilled. It’s great to give and it’s great to learn how to work without all the amenities.

Very interesting article. This reminds me of just how vast our profession is and just how many things you can do as a nurse.

Great interview. If everyone could give to others this much, we’d all be better people for it. An amazing person, with amazing experiences. Thanks for sharing this story.

Humanists are truly a new breed of nurses…

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  • profileI am Gina. I have been a nurse for 15 years, first in med/surg, then CVICU, inpatient dialysis, CCU and now hospice. This blog is about my experiences as a nurse, and the experiences of others in the healthcare system - patients, nurses, doctors, paramedics. We all have stories!

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