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Reddit Ask Me Anything with Humanitarian Aid Nurse Nora Hellman

Emergency nurse, Nora Hellman, has worked and volunteered for International Medical Crops in conflict and disaster zones around the world. She recently answered questions in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. Read a selection of the Q&A below or click here to read all 65 comments!

Q: Hi, Nora, What made you want to go and work in dangerous places like South Sudan?

A: I get asked that a lot…and I guess I have to say, I didn’t see how I could say no. It is an amazing opportunity to go see a place in the world where I would otherwise never have the opportunity to go. AND I have a skill where I am able to help. It was not a decision I came to lightly- but I had been with International Medical Corps a bunch in the past and I know they assess the security situation thoroughly.

Q: In a place like South Sudan what’s the most common illness or injury that you are treating? What sort of diseases do you see?

A: In South Sudan, like a lot of developing countries, we saw a lot of diarrheal illness, pneumonia, and malaria- stuff that they have there all the time, but it gets worse when people are forced to live in camps with limited clean water and food. And depending how bad the fighting was that was going on around us some days we saw a lot of wounds.

And babies! How could I forget the babies! On average our midwives delivered a baby a day!

 Q: Can you talk about why you had to go to South Sudan in the first place? What’s going on there?

A: Basically it is a political conflict that sparked old ethnic tensions- the two largest ethnic groups are fighting each other and as a result hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. The BBC website has a lot of good background info and videos. But for us at International Medical Corps that doesn’t matter- we are neutral and help anyone affected by the conflict.

 Q: Are you able to stay optimistic about the world when you spend time seeing so much suffering?

A: Good question. In the past with International Medical Corps I had worked natural disasters: earthquakes, typhoons. Those are definitely mentally easier for me. Being in a conflict area where you see people hurt because other people have hurt them, or forced them to flee their homes and live in crowded conditions- it is emotionally draining for sure. So you have to take the little successes. What kept me going was working with this group of local nurses every day and knowing that we were training them and giving them skills that would enable them to always be there and help. I focused on that. Because yes, the big picture can overwhelm you.

Q: It must have been scary when you had to take shelter. How long did you have to stay in the bunker? And what’s it like in there?

A: Yeah, that was definitely the “what was I thinking” day. But everything was fine, no aid workers injured or anything like that. We were in and out for a day- no more than a few hours at a time. The tricky part is finding reliable information- when loud gunfire starts it is like the biggest rumor mill you have ever been a part of! Everyone has an opinion on what is going on and when it is safe to go back out. Bunkers come in all shapes and forms- ours was basically a bunch of metal shipping containers with big dirt walls around them.

Q: What was the Philippines like?

A: The Philippines was amazing- beautiful country, amazing, resilient people. Our local nurses and doctors taught me a thing or two about hard work.

Q: Something like a hurricane must be really different to a war zone? Do people react differently to you being there?

A: Exactly right- conflict area is really different than a natural disaster, but in both there are people that want and need help.

Q: How long is one of your deployments? Is it always exciting or sometimes boring?

A: The Emergency Response Team is ideally deployed for about 4 weeks and then we get locals hired are people in there to stay longer if needs, as we transition from the acute emergency phase. SO, for example, International Medical Corps has been in South Sudan for years, supporting primary health care clinics and nutrition programs. Then when the civil war broke out in December, members of the emergency response team came into the country too for 4-8 weeks to respond to all the additional needs.

I would not say it is boring, but it is not always as sexy as people always think it is. It is not always gunshot wounds and delivering babies…although we did that some days! Some days it’s just diarrhea and coughs.

Q: What is the most difficult thing you’ve had to deal with since you’ve been working as a humanitarian nurse?

A: The back and forth is a little hard for me. To go from South Sudan, where people literally have nothing, to an emergency room in the developed world where we have everything…and people still complain (myself included some days)…that is hard to resolve in my head sometimes.

Q: Hello, I just want to start off by saying I find the work you are doing amazing, and was looking into getting into it myself…(I’m a graduating engineer and applied to engineers without borders) but what gives me pause is two things and I was wondering if you could help me out:

1) How do you get along with the local community…Isn’t there a constant threat from local gangs like Janjaweed etc…

2) How easy is it to stay in touch with your family back home?

A: Great! There are so many more needs besides medical needs! Water and sanitation engineers play a very important role too. 1- The deciding factor for me going to South Sudan was that aid workers were not the targets of violence, as they are in other parts of the world. People were glad to have us there, and sure you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in general- because we are neutral- we are not the targets of violence.

2- Totally depends on the situation but technology is amazing! In the Philippines, once I was out in the field we didn’t have cell service for about 3 weeks after the typhoon, and then we were able to get cell service and internet so I could email and Skype family. We have sat phones for emergencies

Read more from Nora’s Reddit AMA here