'The thing about our line of work is that it is never over'

'The thing about our line of work is that it is never over'
FILE - A humanitarian aid worker with Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Medecins Sans Frontieres) helps a Somalian woman. Photo courtesy Wiki Commons (via MGN Online).

PORTLAND, Ore. - We see the images of war zones on network news, we read the reports online and in the newspapers but do we really understand?

In the United States we live in a world where sometimes our biggest challenge of the day is just getting to work on time. There are no heavily-armed militia watching our every move, we have easy access to food and water and if we get sick, we go see a doctor.

But imagine for a moment what it would be like to have everything you take for granted stripped away - your sense of safety, your rights, your most basic needs.

It's a reality that people in war-torn areas of the world know well - where their biggest challenge each day is to just survive. And their problems are so huge and daunting that it can seem like a hopeless effort to help them.

But those who work in humanitarian aid never give up and at the Hollywood Theatre this week, movie-goers got a chance to learn about some of what they do - and the personal risks that those who choose to help others in such great need take on.

It was the first U.S. screening of "Access to the Danger Zone," a documentary that illustrates the difficult, and often dangerous, conditions that Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Medecins Sans Frontieres) face in some of the most poverty stricken, war torn areas of the world.

Doctors Without Borders is a well-known humanitarian aid organization that works across the globe to bring medical help to those who need it most. And in some cases they work in the most dangerous and volatile situations there are. The film's trailer gives you a glimpse of what they do:

"Moving. Amazing." said Jill Williams, a first-year nursing student who watched the film this week. "It makes you want to get involved."

"It was definitely very informative because I hadn't realized the dangers associated with it (doing this type of humanitarian aid work)," said Heidi Kenefick, a second-year medical student who heard about the film and was interested in seeing it so she could learn more about Doctors Without Borders.

Colette Kerr (left) and Anna Mapes (right) answer questions following the screening of Access to the Danger Zone on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com Producer/Reporter.

KATU was at the screening and talked to two local nurses (pictured above) who recently returned to Portland after working abroad for Doctors Without Borders. They were among the speakers who answered audience questions following the film.

To See the Film

"Access to the Danger Zone" will be screened a second time at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. Admittance is free.

Colette Kerr is a Portland-based nurse who has done extensive emergency work in Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Chad. She just returned home after a 14-month stint in east and central Africa where she helped manage humanitarian efforts for Doctors Without Borders.

Anna Mapes is an emergency room nurse at Oregon Health & Science University who just spent six months in Dadaab, Kenya working for Doctors Without Borders. With around 500,000 refugees from neighboring war torn areas there, it is considered the largest refugee camp in the world. Mapes focused on helping the thousands of malnourished children who live there.

In talking with Kerr and Mapes, we asked them about the impact that doing this type of work has had on them and what they have learned from their experiences.

What was it like for you the first time you arrived to begin your work?

Anna - "It was kind of shocking. I was in the desert in Dadaab, Kenya and it was by far the hottest place I had ever been. It was like 110 or 120 degrees. I'm light skinned and that was a shock to my system. And, you know, driving out into the desert - no pavement for three hours. It was difficult to process for a while. You kind of go through your own coping skills for the first few weeks."

Colette - "I was in a hospital that looked like a war zone, even though we weren't in a war zone. It was very overwhelming. But I remember just feeling the support of my team. You are not there alone. I had a really great team around me."

Anna Mapes and Colette Kerr were also recently interviewed on KBOO radio.
Listen to the interview

What was the one thing that shocked you the most?

Anna - "I almost had a reverse shock. Going into it there was just so much of wide-eyed and trying to take in the whole situation. I don't think I realized what I was around until I came back to Portland. I've looked at some videos from Dadaab and seen the population that I was with - the children and the state that they are in, the starvation and the malnutrition. And I look at it now and I'm shocked that was my reality for a period of time - that those were the people around me and that is what they are going through."

Colette - "Just the overwhelming need out there - the overwhelming sense of how many people need to be doing this (humanitarian aid work) and how much people are constantly in need."

What is it like to work in places where conditions are so bad?

Colette - "The first thing you notice is that here when you think of a hospital, you think of 80-year-old people with multiple complications who are very sick and fragile and old. But in Africa, 80 percent of the patients are under five. So that is the first thing you notice - that it's overwhelmingly pediatrics, overwhelmingly young children. And then the second is pregnant women. The other thing you notice is how inventive you can be and how little you need to get most of your things done. There is always an exceptional case where you wish you had this or you wish you had that, but the thing you learn quickly is how much you can get done with just very simple tools and the basic knowledge that any medical person has."

Who is the one person that left the biggest impression on you?

Anna - "We had a kid come in that was probably the worst case that they had seen up to that point - just the most malnourished and refusing to eat or drink. We admitted him to the hospital that day and two and a half weeks later he was released. And his parents brought him back to us. Before, he couldn't stand and (after treatment) he was running around playing with his brothers and sisters. Just being trouble, as he should have been. It was just eye-opening. Like, there is hope here. Thank goodness."

Colette - "I'd say the whole national staff. We come for six months because a lot of times the environment is so intense for us that it's hard for us to really manage more than six months or one year at a time. But the national staff - they are there for years and years and years. And it's the stories they tell you - most of them have actually lived through what the patients are (living through)."

Was it difficult to leave?

Anna - "The relationship that you create with the national staff - the local staff there - you build an amazing daily relationship with them and then, you know, at some point the foreigners leave. And I know it's difficult for them too because that's always their home and we come and go. And it's difficult because the job isn't done when we leave. When my assignment ended, we were evacuated from the camps. The situation had actually gotten worse, not better. It wasn't done. It's always really difficult to leave knowing there's still work to do."

Colette - "The thing about our line of work is that it is never over. But you're not there to solve the problem, you're there to be a part of the solution. And you're not Superman."

Do you ever have feelings of guilt (over the way we live vs. the way they live)?

Anna - "For me, a little bit of that superficial change was difficult. A lot of the things we take for granted disappeared for some time for me. But actually, after my second trip when I was on a mission to Nigeria, when I got back I actually felt that we are really lucky and that we should celebrate what we have. I have traveled to places where they have said 'don't feel sorry for us - this is our reality and we are happy with it.' "

Colette - "If you can enjoy life, you should enjoy life. If you're always suffering, you're not going to be very good to anybody. If you want to help people, you need that (enjoyment out of life)."

How has this experience changed you?

Colette - "I think like any dramatic life experience, it's hard to say how it's changed you. You have definitely changed but how is a bit tricky. It's definitely made me a more understanding human being. I think I do enjoy life more, ironically. With suffering comes more joy. It's that irony. You really appreciate life."

Anna - "You're there for the patients and the kids - you know why you go into it. But at the same time, you put yourself through a sort of personal boot camp. It was really enlightening for me. I learned a lot about myself going on the trip. Not so much how will I survive in warm weather or how can you live in a tent or live with the basics. It was a very intense personal challenge for me - long hours and long meetings, heartbreak, seeing people suffer. I learned a lot about myself through that."

Do you have advice for someone who might be interested in doing something like this?

Colette - "The one thing to remember is that there is a lot of need in this world and you don't have to be medical. We happened to choose the medical profession. Everybody's skills are useful. Not every place is for everybody and not everybody needs to go to a war zone - not every place is a war zone. The key is that there is something for everyone and you just need to find what fits you."

Anna - "Do what speaks to you. I have a comfort level going into these places. It's certainly not for everyone. But Doctors Without Borders is great about making sure that you're comfortable and at every opportunity if you say 'this is not for me,' they are extremely accommodating. They take really good care of their staff."

What can we, as Portlanders, do?

Anna - "I think a way of honoring what the people in the world are going through is just by awareness - respecting and knowing what goes on (in the world) and understanding that people don't live as easily as we do. Going to Africa was a bit of a culture shock but it made me really thankful for having what we have."

Colette - "I think solidarity is essential and that doesn't necessarily mean empathy. You don't have to really understand what's going on to be connected to it. Most people have a heart - they want to do what they can. In Portland, there are so many different organizations. If you want to help animals, help animals. If you want to help the environment, help the environment. If you want to help people in conflict zones, help MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres, a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders). It just depends on where your passion and love is. There's a lot of need in this world and we help a part of it during a period of time. And I think it's highly essential."