With a passion for humanitarian aid work, Wairarapa District Health nurse educator Jenny Percival is home after spending six months working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Jenny was one of several Kiwi nurses from New Zealand Red Cross making up an international surgical team.

Treating gunshot wounds and severe malnutrition

Years of tribal tension and instability mean organisations like Red Cross are well established in the region. Along with medical aid, ICRC supports communities with food, water, sanitation and building programmes. They help people to grow their own food and run immunisation programmes for cattle, as cows are the main source of wealth and prestige in South Sudan.

Jenny spent some of her time working in a community hospital in Maiwut, close to the Ethiopian border with Sudan. The hospital is resourced by ICRC and includes a fully equipped surgical team, supplying all the medicines and supporting local staff wages as government wages are not reliable. Her main focus was treating weapon wounds, mainly from gunshots. She also worked with children and locals suffering common medical conditions: severe malnutrition, pneumonia (in small children), gastro bugs, and hepatitis.

Aid worker Jenny Percival with her colleagues at the community hospital in Maiwut.

Her 15 years’ experience as a nurse in Wairarapa Hospital’s Emergency Department was put to the test in South Sudan. Jenny took part in several emergency medical evacuations where patients needing urgent surgery were airlifted by plane or helicopter to a makeshift theatre.

“This was typically an existing concrete building where we could set up with a portable generator and steriliser. Small things that we take for granted in New Zealand, like blood transfusions, were challenging. There was no way to store blood. If a patient required a transfusion we had to ask a relative for blood, and keep our fingers crossed that the laboratory was available," she says.

It was times like these it really came home to me how resilient the human body is. It’s incredible how people can survive with simple interventions, and often having a hospital stay for many months. Life is hard. Conditions are harsh, but the people are stoic and hopeful and brave.

Jenny worked with South Sudanese nurses to educate them on supportive care – although it was very different to her nurse educator role in the Acute Services at Wairarapa Hospital.

“At home, as a nurse educator, I’m there to help new staff and graduates develop skills and confidence and keep up with the latest advances in research and clinical practice. It’s great to be able to support nurses to grow and develop,” she says.

“In South Sudan, the priorities were very different. I guided and reinforced the nurses’ skills around patient care but at the same time, the cold hard facts were I had to prioritise what was most important at that moment. Saving lives was paramount.”

"We all have a different way of doing things"

She’s positive about her time spent in South Sudan and the contribution she made.

“Six months gave me time to hopefully embed some basic nursing practices with the nurses I was working with. The locals see so much change with medical teams coming and going, continuity is difficult as we all have different ways of doing things.”

Barriers around language and culture meant it was easy for things to get lost in translation. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the main language is Arabic, but there are also 60 indigenous languages. The medical team, many of whom spoke English as a second language, relied on translators and family of patients to communicate.

Despite the challenges, Jenny is enthusiastic about doing more aid work, and is part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Emergency Response Team for the Pacific.

While it is an adjustment to settle back into life at the District Health Board, she is very pragmatic about the contrasts of South Sudan and New Zealand.

“Over there, I had to let go of my own world view and just accept that that was how life is over there. Other things become more important.”