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Rescue Mission

A local nurse shares her story of joy and heartache

By Jason Santerre

For 40 years now, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has brought emergency medical and humanitarian relief to nearly 70 countries, many of them in the midst of war, famine and unspeakable atrocities. Montreal nurse, Elizabeth Hinton, recently found herself aboard an MSF ship off the coast of Libya. Ms. Hinton shared her experience with us.

Montréal enSanté: Why choose nursing as a career path?

Elizabeth Hinton: I used to help my mother take care of my siblings whenever they were sick or hurt. I learned a lot from my parents who are generous with their time and just care about everyone, everywhere.

MES: Tell us about your involvement with Médecins Sans Frontières.

EH: One of my earliest memories is Biafra [formerly a secessionist state of Nigeria]. The images of starving, sick children made me determined to help. As a teenager, I came across an article written by a doctor working with MSF. I held onto that article and told myself that I’d work for MSF one day.

MES: What was your initial experience like?

EH: We were on the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy. We’d wait about 25 nautical miles off the coast of Libya for a call from Italy informing us if there was a dinghy with migrants on board. Sometimes we’d find them ourselves. The captain and his crew were on the lookout 24 hours a day. As for the first rescue, I remember being surprised to see so many people from Sub-Saharan Africa. I was expecting Afghans and Syrians. These people had walked through grueling desert with barely enough food and water. Many said they had to drink their own urine. And then came torture, slavery, rape, and humiliation in Libya.

MES: What were some of the more common injuries and ailments?

EH: Pulmonary diseases and skin diseases like scabies, broken bones, lashes on the skin, rape, dehydration, headache, epigastric burning, and sexually transmitted infections. Once aboard the ship, the doctor, midwife and I would see the most critical cases in our infirmary. Each person received a kit composed of a water bottle they could refill, energy biscuits, a towel, socks, and a blanket for the cold nights.

MES: What was the mood aboard the ship?

EH: Stress would find them as we approached the shores of Italy. At first there would be loud cheers, excitement, and songs when they’d see land. But they’d eventually enter a pensive state, just staring out at the land. There was so much uncertainty: Where to go? How to earn a living? How to learn Italian? Will they be accepted? Can their children go to school? Their fate depended on the authorities. Goodbyes were tough on all of us.

MES: Did the experience change you?

EH: We hear a lot in the news about how migrants take our jobs, steal, set off bombs, et cetera. I can say I met many frustrated people on the ship, but after listening to them with compassion and respect, they would very often embrace us, thank us, smile, and even help others on board. I used to have little faith in humanity, but meeting so many courageous, beautiful people forced me to open my eyes and witness how it is possible to make our world a better place.

MES: You’re a true heroine.

EH: I am in no way a heroine. The heroes are the refugees who fled their homes, their countries, and faced certain horrors in search of a better life.

 

Winter 2017, Vol 9 N°1

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