Renmore woman Laura Heavey is travelling to South Sudan to begin working with the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF ) in a hospital in the northwest of the country. Ms. Heavey, who graduated from NUIG has specialised in paediatric medicine for a number of years and will be working in a clinic run in conjunction with the South Sudanese Ministry of Health.
“I’m going to a hospital in Aweil and it’s the main hospital and point of care for the region with a catchment area of over a million.” The hospital treats the regular medical needs of the local population, as well as dealing with the injuries and illnesses that are a direct result of the conflict in the area.
South Sudan has seen intense fighting since declaring independence from Sudan in 2011 and the recently-formed nation of South Sudan has struggled with internal conflict and insecurity since announcing its independence.
Ms. Heavey was originally attracted to the work of MSF because of the neutral, impartial values of the organisation. “From my point of view I like how MSF aren’t political and they go in and do what needs to be done, and they don’t let politics get in the way of that. They treat everybody. I like the principle that they will speak out.”
As a medical student Ms Heavey completed some of her training in Tanzania and looks forward to returning to Africa. “I spent about two months in East Africa. As a medical student I felt I wasn’t really able to contribute much; we didn’t have many skills. We were mainly there to learn and be taught. I always felt like I wanted to go back when I had some skills and training and I could be more helpful, I feel like now is the time.”
The security situation in South Sudan remains difficult; despite this; Ms. Heavey says that her family wasn’t too upset about her decision. “My Mum’s relieved actually. I had her psyched up that I would be going somewhere a lot scarier. I prepared family for the worst.”
Conflict in southern Unity state has escalated in the past few months, and the people of the region are experiencing the worst of the instability. Access to medical care, food support and other humanitarian assistance has become unpredictable, and many people have been forced to flee their homes repeatedly and to hide for long periods in the surrounding bush and swamplands.
Médecins Sans Frontières first began working in South Sudan in 1983. The organisation has now over three thousand South Sudanese employees in combination with over two hundred and fifty international staff, providing emergency and acute medical care for hundreds of thousands of people each year. As well as treating traumatic injuries such as gunshot wounds and burns, the organisation also oversees vaccination programmes and interventions against diseases like malaria, cholera and hepatitis. Researching the hospital where she will be based, Heavey noticed some noticeable differences to working in an Irish context: “A lot of the conditions in the hospital were things I had only read about in textbooks. They’ve a whole ward for tetanus and you just don’t see that in Ireland because everybody is vaccinated.”
Having just completed two years of specialist paediatric training, Ms Heavey is looking forward to beginning her work with in South Sudan. “I’ll be going out there to help with the paediatric ward which I’m told is about one hundred and fifty beds but often there are more children than beds, especially during the malaria season which is coming up.”
Working with children is something that Ms Heavey has found rewarding throughout her career. “Kids are actually good craic most of the time! They’re satisfying to treat because when they’re better they want to get out of bed and start playing again. A lot of the conditions that children get, they’re a lot more easily treatable, and it’s really satisfying because you can get them in and out of hospital quite quickly.”
Speaking about how her own life will be changing over the coming months, Ms Heavey expects that some parts of the trip could be difficult. “I think I’ll find Christmas tough, I really love Christmas but I think it’ll help that it’s really sunny and hot and it won’t really feel like winter, and I’ll have Christmas when I get back! It’s my birthday in October and my mother insisted on celebrating it last week!”
MSF is a medical humanitarian organisation that was established in 1971 in order to provide emergency medical treatment in the wake of man-made and natural disasters, and is currently working in over 65 countries worldwide.
For further information log onto www.msf.ie or telephone (01 ) 6603337. To support MSF or to access the latest information on its medical humanitarian work around the world visit its website www.msf.ie