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Denise's story: from Australian outback to African desert

Nurse Denise Tyler with mother and child in clinicAn Australian bush nurse who swapped her day job in the Aboriginal outback to work for the Red Cross in Sudan has just returned from the toughest assignment of her life. If anyone could cope with the hot, dusty desert of Sudan then you would expect Denise Tyler, a bush nurse for 25 years, to be a safe bet.

But at the end of her six-month contract, Denise confesses that it was one of the toughest jobs in her nursing career.

“I love my job. I have done some tough jobs but I have never worked so hard in my life,” Denise said.

The Australian worked as a nurse in a camp for displaced people in the remote town of Gereida in southern Darfur. The camp is home to nearly 49,000 Sudanese people displaced by ongoing civil strife in Darfur in the west of Sudan.

Feeding malnourished children

Nurse Denise Tyler vaccinates child from polio in Darfur, SudanThe camp is supported by an integrated project involving the Sudanese Red Crescent, the British and Australian Red Cross Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Denise worked in the camp’s Primary Health Care unit, which included a feeding centre for malnourished children.

Despite her long experience in the sun-scorched Australian bush, Denise struggled in the soaring Sudanese climate. “It was incredibly hot,” she said. “It has cooled down now but generally it was 40 degrees Celsius most days. When I had my briefing in London and Geneva in February it was snowing - when I arrived in Gereida it was 45 degrees.”

She described how the heat proved to be a practical nightmare – for example, when using thermometers. “I would shake the thermometer but no matter what I did it would rush straight back up to 40 degrees, making it difficult to use. We tried digital thermometers but they couldn’t cope either,” Denise said.

The hot conditions were difficult enough but as the work at the clinic increased, Denise and her Red Cross colleagues found themselves working up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Curbing disease

Child with plumpynut sits on mum's knee"We saw up to 250 patients each day in the main clinic which was over 1200 per week,'' Denise said.

Although the clinic was very basic, Denise described how it played a vital role in curbing disease in the camp and the nearby town. The clinic helped roll out the Sudanese government’s programme of polio immunisation and measles vaccinations.

“The measles vaccinations were really important because if there was one case of the disease in the camp it spread really fast and could kill children off very quickly,” Denise said.

“At the moment there is lots of malaria in Gereida,” Denise said and stressed the very great need for health education. Another major issue at Gereida was the number of malnourished children.

“You see pictures of these malnourished children in Niger but we would have seen kids like that all the time,” Denise said.

``In the worst cases they were less than 70 per cent standard weight for their height – all skinny and scrawny, with pressure sores because there was nothing between skin and bone. We just wouldn’t see anything like that in western countries.”

A feeding centre was set up at the back of the health clinic, which soon became a major focus of the camp’s work.

“The numbers of children on the feeding programme rose very quickly,” she said. “We were supposed to have 150 children a week, by the end of May we had 700 - a huge increase.”

Both depressing and amazing

Denise said the job could be depressing at times but it was “amazing” to see many of these children get better. Her colleagues, many of whom were displaced people themselves living in the camp, also inspired her.

“There was one female colleague from the camp who seemed particularly quiet one day but had come into work. I found out later that her sister had died the night before from malaria,” Denise said.

Close to two million people have been displaced by internal conflict in Darfur in western Sudan and 200,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring Chad. In two years it has become the largest ICRC relief operation.

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