Heather Harris - Midwife with MSF
Some sow their wild oats when they’re young; others explore the world later in life. Midwife Heather Harris worked hard, raised her family, went to university, then, when the children were old enough, she “left home” to join Médecins Sans Frontières.
For 31 years she had worked close to home, starting her career as a registered nurse in rural Victoria. In 1969 she went to Adelaide, trained in midwifery and worked there for a year before returning to Victoria to work in various maternity hospitals in birth rooms. She’d been a midwife for 31 years before joining Médecins Sans Frontières in 2001.
“I was in a very senior position at the Royal Women’s Hospital, working as a clinical midwife consultant and I was just burnt out,” Heather said.
“I’d come to the end of my time and wanted a change. I applied to Médecins Sans Frontières but didn’t expect much – thought I was too old and I’d never worked with an organisation like theirs but had always wanted to.
“The first job they offered me was in Sri Lanka in a nurse teaching role but I ended up also working as a midwife. I was there for almost a year. By the time that was finished I was very homesick so I thought that was it for me… but it’s a very addictive lifestyle.”
So Heather went back to Sri Lanka as a field coordinator in another project, but again found her midwifery skills were called upon when the international staff midwife fell ill with dengue fever and was sent home to Denmark. Then it was back to Melbourne for 18 months before the urge kicked in again and she left for the Ivory Coast in West Africa, again as a midwife.
“I just loved that place and took three consecutive placements there. The local people were among the most delightful I’d ever met - the national staff were outstanding and taught me so much. I saw pathologies I’d never seen in my 31 years as a midwife and learned a huge amount.
“When you’re in a resource poor environment you rely on your creativity and it’s an eye-opener to see how the national staff manage – how they resuscitate without equipment and cope without running water in a hospital, for instance. They are so resilient and tenacious.
Heather’s daughter refers to her trips as “going through the looking glass” but did her Alice in Wonderland experiences deliver what she expected?
“Definitely, I quite like a bit of hardship challenge. It obviously suits my temperament. I believe there’s a selfish reason for me doing this because I enjoy being out of my comfort zone at times,” she said.
“The last 10 years have been a renaissance for me; a change for the better. I actually feel younger now than I did 30 years ago.
“When you’re living in those environments you develop intense relationships and lasting friendships with people from all over the world and with the national staff, and you see things through a different lens.
At first you think you’re going to save the world but you get there and realise that as an individual you can’t change much overnight – how could you? But respect for the culture and an enquiring mind leaves you wide open to seeing how much you can learn from local people. ”
It certainly helps that Médecins Sans Frontières is a very ethical medical humanitarian organisation, she says.
“They try hard to put their money where their mouth is. Overall they look after their staff well, are very security conscious and do a good job.”
Heather advises midwives leaving for the field that they need good basic diagnostic knowledge and that they should go with curiosity, humility and respect and be open to learning something new each day.
“It’s arrogant in the extreme to think you are there only to teach,” she says. “In reality, the learning and teaching are a two way street.”
Heather is off again at the end of April, this time to southern Sudan for six months but thinks this will be her last placement because at age 62 she may be needed for grandparent duties at some stage.
“I would have been tracking through jungles at age 30 if I didn’t have kids to bring up. It’s just such an adventure and a great opportunity. For me it’s been transformative. You keep going back because it changes your world view and challenges you,” she said.
“You can’t go to these places with high stress, including war zones, and see the travails of these people and not be changed. They have it so hard and we have it so easy and it’s just an accident of birth. It could so easily have been me born into these difficult environments.”
All field workers are insured for health, medical repatriation, death and disability for the period of their project. All costs associated with the work are covered, including your travel from home to the project, and living expenses while you're away.
The basic monthly stipend for people without previous relevant field experience for the first 12 months is $1400.
To find out more about working with Médecins Sans Frontières, visit www.msf.org.au/join-our-team
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