Red Cross nurse Gail Cor­bett has spent seven years work­ing in coun­tries rav­aged by war, drought and famine. Tired of be­ing an ob­server, it was sim­ply her time to help, she tells Bess Man­son.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS - To do­nate to the Red Cross re­lief fund go to: red­­nate/africa-famine-ap­peal/ For more about the sit­u­a­tion in So­ma­lia go to stuff.

Gail Cor­bett digs a woman from the rub­ble of a bomb-blasted build­ing in Gaza. An­other Pales­tinian vic­tim of the 50-day war in 2014. There’s an im­age of Cor­bett (far right), a Red Cross nurse and health del­e­gate, with Pales­tinian am­bu­lance crew stretcher­ing the woman off against the back­drop of dev­as­ta­tion, IV bag in hand, a sense of ur­gency in her stride.

She was prob­a­bly mak­ing her break­fast when her home was blasted by an Is­raeli shell, Cor­bett later re­calls.

“We all helped get the concrete off her and man­aged to get her out and on the stretcher. It was prob­a­bly one of the scarier things I’ve had to do.”

She doesn’t look like some­one eas­ily rat­tled. In fact, de­spite close en­coun­ters with gun-wield­ing war­lords in So­ma­lia, near misses with bombs in Afghanistan and some rather per­ilous times in Gaza and Iraq, Cor­bett, 55, ap­pears un­flap­pable.

Talk­ing about her ex­pe­ri­ences in rav­aged hotspots around the world, she is de­cid­edly mea­sured, deeply prag­matic, which is prob­a­bly why she is good at this.

“I have a healthy in­ter­est in se­cu­rity but I’m not scared, oth­er­wise I wouldn’t do it. You have to have a healthy re­gard for your own safety but I used to ride a bike in to Wellington Hospi­tal and that’s al­most more dan­ger­ous. It’s just a dif­fer­ent risk I’m ex­pos­ing my­self to.”

All the same, the tran­quil sur­rounds of her mother’s home in a very sleepy Levin, where she is rest­ing up be­fore her next de­ploy­ment, must be a rad­i­cal con­trast with her life over­seas.

Cor­bett was most re­cently in So­ma­lia where she worked in hos­pi­tals, mon­i­tor­ing drugs and equip­ment, train­ing staff and im­prov­ing sys­tems.

The Red Cross left So­ma­lia in 1996 be­cause of the in­creased dan­ger with an un­sta­ble gov­ern­ment, war­ring clans and mil­i­tant groups such as Al-Shabaab. Based in Nairobi, Cor­bett flew in for sev­eral days at a time to work in hos­pi­tals in Mo­gadishu, Kis­mayo and Baidoa.

Most of the wounded she saw were as a re­sult of Al-Shabaab’s bomb­ing cam­paigns. But ev­ery day there are con­flict ca­su­al­ties – it might be be­tween Al-Shabaab and the Gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary forces and those with il­le­gal weapons, or be­tween clans. “It’s a very volatile sit­u­a­tion,” she says. There are armed peo­ple driv­ing around ev­ery­where, she says. There’s a lack of trust for any­one, by any­one.

She and other Red Cross staff trav­elled with guards. They did se­cu­rity cour­ses. They are as well pre­pared as you can be, she says.

“When you get to the So­mali del­e­ga­tion they talk about what would hap­pen in a kid­nap­ping sit­u­a­tion, proof of life and all that. By that point if you haven’t re­alised there’s a risk, you have had your ears and eyes closed.”

Adding to the war woes is a cat­a­strophic drought and sub­se­quent famine in the Horn of Africa and Ye­men. And with famine comes other prob­lems.

“We saw a lot of out­breaks of dis­ease, like cholera. There’s ei­ther no wa­ter or if there is the qual­ity is poor. They don’t have the ca­pac­ity to fil­ter or pu­rify be­cause th­ese are poor pop­u­la­tions.”

Her job was to arm the hos­pi­tals with the skills to deal with th­ese out­breaks and to pre­pare for their in­evitabil­ity each year. One hospi­tal had a mal­nu­tri­tion feed­ing cen­tre for the un­der fives. It opened with 60 beds. When Cor­bett left that had in­creased to 200 beds and that’s set to dou­ble again. “You just want to be able to do so much more. “Emo­tion­ally it’s very, very hard work. But it’s like be­ing a nurse any­where, what we see is very tough. But if you were de­stroyed by it you couldn’t do your job. You have to learn cop­ing strate­gies.

“For me it’s sim­ple things – like ac­cess to a swim­ming pool. When I’m in Nairobi I swim ev­ery day. I go away for the week­ends. Sit­ting around wor­ry­ing about the work ev­ery day doesn’t im­prove the job you do.”

The re­wards are the pos­i­tive re­sults. “You see th­ese mal­nour­ished kids and ba­bies who come in and look as if they are at death’s door. Maybe within two or three weeks they are up and smil­ing and bounc­ing around. I think see­ing that had a pro­found ef­fect on me.”

Raised in Scot­land and Para­pa­raumu, Cor­bett wanted to be a nurse from a very early age. “It was not some­thing I can re­mem­ber con­sciously think­ing about. It was just al­ways some­thing that I was go­ing to do.”

Af­ter train­ing at Taranaki Base Hospi­tal she and her hus­band moved back to Scot­land, from where her fam­ily had em­i­grated in the 1970s. Af­ter a stint fur­ther­ing her stud­ies in mid­wifery they re­turned to New Zealand where they raised their two chil­dren.

She worked in Christchurch Women’s Hospi­tal and later Wellington Hospi­tal, pre­dom­i­nantly in the neona­tal unit, but she had al­ways hoped to work with the Red Cross one day. In 2010, with the break-up of her mar­riage and her chil­dren both flown the coop, she de­cided that day had come.

“I’d done high-pres­sure jobs as a clin­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor in hos­pi­tals and worked as an ed­u­ca­tor. I guess what I wanted to do was some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place, but to stay in nurs­ing.

“We only see one side of any­thing here and peo­ple make some pretty hard judg­ments on what is pre­sented to us on the news. This was an op­por­tu­nity to see the big pic­ture. To see what was be­hind th­ese sto­ries. What we see is quite light and not very bal­anced.

“I thought this is my time to do some­thing in a small way. In­stead of just watch­ing what was hap­pen­ing in the world I can do some­thing to help right now.”

“Th­ese peo­ple who just want the best for their chil­dren, but the best is within a 300-square kilo­me­tre prison.”

Her first post­ing was to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, where she worked as an in­ten­sive care ward nurse in the south­ern city of Na­jaf.

The nurs­ing work­force in Iraq be­fore Saddam Hussein’s rule was pre­dom­i­nantly from over­seas – the Philip­pines and In­dia. When the con­flict started peo­ple got out if they could, so the Red Cross went in to help build up the skills of peo­ple work­ing in the hos­pi­tals.

“Men would be pulled off the street – there are no women in the work­force – and told they could ei­ther go to war or be a nurse, so you would have th­ese peo­ple work­ing in a ward or in an emer­gency de­part­ment with very lit­tle knowl­edge, but a lot of hands-on skill be­cause they learn on the job.”

The hospi­tal’s emer­gency de­part­ment would of­ten be in­un­dated with mass ca­su­al­ties, many of them as a re­sult of the gen­eral con­flict – pil­grims tar­geted on their way to the Holy city of Kar­bala, for ex­am­ple.

Af­ter her first year she was hooked on the work and ac­cepted a po­si­tion in Kan­da­har, Afghanistan, where she worked for eight months.

She re­called one fam­ily who came into the hospi­tal in Kan­da­har af­ter be­ing blasted by an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice (IED) – three lit­tle girls, an aunt and a fa­ther sur­vived. The mother was killed.

A month af­ter she left, a bomb ex­ploded in the hospi­tal carpark she used ev­ery day.

Cor­bett shrugs. You are trained to look around for any­thing dif­fer­ent in a place where ev­ery­thing is dif­fer­ent, she says. Th­ese are the risks you take.

Her third post­ing saw her in Gaza in 2014. A health del­e­gate train­ing doc­tors and nurses, she worked in the main trauma hos­pi­tals. Ev­ery day there would be rock­ets go­ing out of Gaza and every­one would wait to see if it was a big enough rocket for the Is­raeli air force to send out a drone and drop a bomb in re­tal­i­a­tion. You never re­ally know how it’s go­ing to go, she says.

Ne­go­ti­at­ing be­tween par­ties to en­able the Red Cross to get med­i­cal sup­plies into Gaza was high on the agenda. Lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion must be kept open to en­sure am­bu­lances have safe pas­sage to re­trieve the wounded.

She re­calls be­ing de­ployed with the Pales­tinian Red Cres­cent am­bu­lance staff af­ter a whole area of the city had been flat­tened by shelling, with a bull­dozer lead­ing the way to re­move the rub­ble from the road.

“One of my roles was to help add pro­tec­tion to the Pales­tinian Red Cres­cent am­bu­lances. You ne­go­ti­ate a win­dow when there’s go­ing to be no fight­ing and once that’s es­tab­lished Red Cross ve­hi­cles can lead the col­umn and be at the back, so we’re recog­nis­able.”

It wasn’t just about get­ting the wounded out, it was about get­ting peo­ple in to as­sess what kind of weapons were be­ing used. There’s al­ways more to the work than meets the eye, she says.

The most dif­fi­cult thing about Gaza was not the bombs, the threat to life, the noise and chaos of it all. The worst thing was leav­ing every­one be­hind, she says.

“It’s not just about leav­ing friends be­hind, some of th­ese peo­ple will never get out of there. And ev­ery time there’s an­other war it just gets tougher for them.

“It’s hard to see th­ese peo­ple who just want the best for their chil­dren but the best is within this 300-square kilo­me­tre prison.”

Her work has con­cen­trated on run­ning ef­fi­cient hos­pi­tals but it’s not only health projects that the Red Cross fo­cuses on. The man­age­ment team ne­go­ti­ates with all the par­ties in­volved in con­flicts – gov­ern­ments, rebels, fac­tions, she says. “They are ne­go­ti­at­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing. They are out there ed­u­cat­ing about in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law, the proper way to fight, how they should not in­volve civil­ians. We want to talk about this to any­one who will lis­ten, es­pe­cially the armed forces, the le­gal and il­le­gal arms bear­ers.

“To run a hospi­tal it’s not just about the sup­plies com­ing in, it’s be­ing able to land in that town and then travel safely into the hospi­tal. It’s about mak­ing sure the hospi­tal is neu­tral ground and avail­able for all sides of the con­flict, all clans.

“It’s a bit about us­ing health as a tool to get into a com­mu­nity to ed­u­cate about other agen­das. Pro­tec­tion of civil­ian pop­u­la­tions is huge part of the work we do.”

While those in­volved in a con­flict might not like be­ing in­structed in mat­ters of war­fare by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee for the Red Cross, that’s the man­date pro­vided by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity through the Geneva Con­ven­tion, Cor­bett says.

In a few months she’ll travel back to Afghanistan. Even the small­est suc­cess in places fac­ing tur­moil makes her work worth­while. “A lot of this was about my cu­rios­ity to go there and see what I could ac­tu­ally do.

“Some­times you can do very lit­tle ex­cept make sure a lit­tle pocket of peo­ple are get­ting cared for.”

“I thought this is my time to do some­thing in a small way. In­stead of just watch­ing, I can do some­thing to help right now.”

Gail Cor­bett in Levin, a world away from hotspots she works in. Above right: Cor­bett (far right) in Gaza.

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