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After many different nursing positions, I joined the Tairawhiti public health unit and was later to realise that there could be no better training ground in the world for international work.
Many people were perplexed, when in 2002 I announced that I wanted to join an international Red Cross humanitarian team. Why would I want to leave my city where the life was easy, to go into hardship and possible danger? Someone said to me that I just got off my couch and jumped into the dark. But they were wrong – I jumped into the light. Into a role that suited me so well, into a life that acutely challenged me on both a professional and personal level.
The delegate role was perfect as it kept me in an area where I could work, and get to know some of the locals. I had no wish to just travel just as a tourist. At first I did not think I had an accent, and was very surprised when some of my European colleagues could not understand what I was saying. Over the years I got used to this, but I have to say I was always pleased if a delegate from the Southern Hemisphere appeared.
In many of the countries where I was posted, poverty and hardship was the norm and the people suffered on many levels. But their pride and dignity was always intact, and the worst thing one could ever do was to talk down to them. I remember a housekeeper in South Sudan saying to me that she thought I was different from the European delegates. She said, “Janet, it is like you really see us”, to which I replied, “this is because I do, as I have lived with, and had to consider, another culture since I was a baby”.
Yes, there were times when some of the missions were extremely dangerous, but we were in it together, with the local staff just as affected as an international delegate. I consider myself so lucky to be a New Zealander, as in many countries where I have worked there is not such a high level of medical care. If one cannot pay, then it is unlikely that any, or only poor intervention is available. Services that we take for granted in New Zealand are considered a gift by those who have to ride three days on a donkey to get to a vehicle that might take them to a hospital.
A delegate needs to be extremely resilient to travel, different beds and pillows, heat and cold, dust and dirt, illness, and at times being alone. Yet despite all of this, I found the job I loved, and it is with great sadness that I now cannot continue. As most of you will know, I am terminally ill. I am only here today because of the outstanding medical care I have received from the specialists, doctors and nurses who have treated me since my return from Lebanon last October.
How do I feel about getting the Florence Nightingale Medal? As I once told Nine to Noon presenter Kathryn Ryan, I have never done this work expecting medals. In fact, I think that the people who were suffering should have been getting the medals, not me! I was 'in it' and just wanting seriously to do my job to the best of my ability. To get the assistance to the people so that their lives would be easier. However, I think that the medal is making my family very proud of me and that only has to be a good thing.
Special thanks to New Zealand Red Cross for its support over the years. I know that the good work will go on, and that New Zealand Red Cross, which is highly regarded internationally, will continue to find delegates prepared to seriously work hard.
I was told once that people would never thank me for my work, but this was not true. I am now left with so many wonderful memories of amazing places seen that you could never imagine, beautiful smiles, humble thanks and many blessings. And how could I ever feel unhappy about that?