A proud cross to bear

1 July 2013

Gisborne nurse Janet Askew loves her garden, being a grandma, and working in some of the world’s worst trouble spots. A decade of working in war-torn Sudan to natural disaster-hit Indonesia recently won her Red Cross’s highest international nursing award ­– the Florence Nightingale Medal. She tells FIONA CASSIE why she loves her work.

Janet Askew wanted to pinch herself with joy.

The temperatures were soaring into the high 40s, the roads were broken, and the health centre was made of mud brick by refugees from a 20-year war.

But she fell in love with both the work and the country when sent to southern Sudan for her first Red Cross mission in early 2003. It was Africa, it was intriguing, the Sudanese people were engaging and she was making a difference.

“I felt that I had really found my niche in life,” recalls Askew, who agrees some sights were not happy.

“We often like to focus on the danger and the negative, but in fact, people are often –particularly on that mission –very, very grateful that Red Cross was there and there were some very happy times. Without us there, many people would have died … many more people would have died, especially children.”

At the tender age of three, after having her tonsils out in Wairoa Hospital, Askew decided that nursing was for her. A few years later, reading a book about nurses working in difficult circumstances “it may even have been about Florence Nightingale” sowed the seed of wanting to do similar work overseas.

But it wasn’t until the early 2000s – divorced and with the youngest of her two children just finishing university – that she felt free and ready to send off a letter to Red Cross saying she wanted to be part of a humanitarian team.

By then she had been nursing for more than 30 years in Gisborne, with a career including practice nursing, surgical night nursing when her children were little, district nursing for eight years, public health nursing, and working in health promotion until restructuring in the late 1990s saw her taking redundancy and becoming a tutor.

First mission

She was 49 when in early 2003 she arrived in Juba, the capital of Sudan, as a Red Cross delegate working with local health officials to help restore primary health care services in the broken city, which was flooded with refugees from the countryside escaping the long drawn-out conflict.

“They came with very little but they’d build mud brick health centres, churches, and schools. Always with a view to go home someday if they could.”

The Red Cross was one of the few agencies working in the region and was providing all medicines, consumables, and helping train staff and community health educators. “It was just fantastic work”.

So much so that after returning at the end of that first year for her son’s wedding, she returned to Sudan in 2004 for another year-long mission.

Askew was home again for Christmas 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami wreaked its havoc. Unwell at the time, she couldn’t answer a call to join the immediate Red Cross emergency response team, but 18 weeks later, she took up a high-level health delegate role in Jakarta working to help coordinate the many Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies working on the rebuild and restoration. During her year there, the region also was hit by the Yogyakarta earthquake, which killed around 6000 people, injured tens of thousands, and left an estimated more than a million homeless. Also that year was the second Bali bombing …

Bombs were also a theme of her mission in Iraq. “I was there when there were plenty of explosions going off,” says Askew, sounding remarkably unperturbed by the memory. With each bombing or explosion killing tens of people and injuring potentially hundreds, understandably hospitals struggled to cope and soon ran out of IV fluids and other essentials. Her role was working with the Red Cross’s biggest medical warehouse on the logistics of helping restock hospitals with IV fluids, antibiotics, bandages, gauze, and other emergency and essential supplies.

Terrible consequences of female circumcision

Her latest mission was back to Sudan – her fourth mission there – but this time to the north where the more traditional rural villages still practice full female circumcision (also known as FGM or female genital mutilation) with ‘terrible consequences’.

Askew says many of them are very young and they start having babies young, go onto obstructed labour, and if they don’t die, they end up with a fistula. Her last mission involved flying woman from rural areas of South Darfur to North Darfur to see whether the fistula could be surgically repaired.

“We had 18 young women that were just leaking, pouring out urine really, and only two of them were successfully repaired,” says Askew. “So it’s a terrible outcome for the young women because they are ruined for life.”

“They call it the three sorrows of women: the circumcision, the wedding night, and the childbirth. Can you imagine that?”

Askew says sadly it is the village grandmothers and the aunties who ensure FGM continues, believing the tradition must continue so the women are clean.

Packing bags again after a year of being Grandma

Despite a decade working in some of the world’s trouble spots, Askew describes herself as a basically a homely kind of person. She loves her family, her garden, and her home (which incidentally her 87-year-old mother lives in and looks after during her time away, including until just recently mowing the lawns).

This time, she has spent a whole year back in New Zealand to be with her son and daughter-in-law leading up to the birth of her grandson, Felix, and she was working for the Cancer Society when the announcement was made of her Florence Nightingale Medal.

With Felix and his parents happily settled, she is now packing her bags in readiness to flying out to Geneva in late June on the way to her seventh mission – this time to Lebanon working to help the region support the Syrian refugees who have flooded across the border.

She is not looking forward to facing her old – enemies temperature and tiredness – leaving a southern hemisphere winter for 35 degrees plus in Beirut which plays havoc with her biorhythms as she adjusts to a new time zone and climate. But a decade on, she still loves the work too much to let such personal discomforts put her off.

“It is just such fantastic work.”