Interview with Mary Lightfine

Interview with Mary Lightfine, nurse, 43, American, 13th mission with  MSF.

What I find most relevant here in Brazda camp is that the refugees volunteer to work with us. A lot of doctors and nurses who are living in the camp as refugees want to help their own people and they offer their services. They come to us everyday, on time. They work really hard and they are helping us take care of other people. They are so dedicated. They don't ask for any money, but they truly care about each other and they have a kind of community dedication towards the service they are providing for their own people. But what saddens me most is that the people who are offering their assistance have also suffered a lot. And every time patients come and tell their stories, it kind of reinforces the sadness that the people feel they are helping us.

And some of the nurses tell us sad stories about themselves. For instance, one of the nurses, her name is Velbona, came to help me. She told me that one night the police came and they wore masks and they spoke with an accent similar to the people in her area. She knew they were local people and they knocked on her door and told her that they had only minutes to leave. They killed her dog, burnt her house down and she had to escape. Her father had worked all his life to buy their house, to buy their car and to build a nice home. They had only minutes to get out. She watched her entire house disappear. The police were cruel enough just to kill her dog. There was no need to but just to torment them a little bit And every day in the clinic she seemed to get worse and worse.

And every time a patient came to us to tell us a similar story she got more and more depressed. Finally one day she was wringing her hands going from tent to tent saying she couldn't work, she didn't know where she would go or where she would live. She didn't know what her father would do for earning the living. He had lived all of his life to provide all this for her and her family and now there is nothing left. There is no home to go home to. There are no birth certificates or licenses or papers or anything. And I was helpless, I did not know what I could do for her, I really felt so horrible. She left (for Germany) and another nurse took her place with the same story. One day she comes and smiles. Then, each day, she loses her smiles. And each time a patient tells us his story she gets sadder and sadder. This is also hard for us. We are all from the same lifestyle. We all live like they lived only moments ago, only weeks ago.

And I think what is really hard for me is that it could be me, it could be you, it could be anybody. And I can understand what they say. I can visualise their homes, their gardens. That is what is really different in this refugee situation compared to Africa. Today I met a lady from New Jersey (USA) She lived where I lived, where I grew up, and now she is a refugee. All this is so close to home and that frightens me. These people come and ask for silly little things. When you give it to them, they are grateful and they say thanks. They are really appreciative. They are not selfish at all. If they have to share something, they share it. They really keep an eye on the others.  And all they want you to say is that everything is okay. Yesterday one of the  journalists asked the local nurse her why she wanted to come to the clinic  every day. She said she only wanted to see my smile. And it made her feel better just to smile at her.

I work in Brazda and I also worked in Radusa. The situation in both camps is quite different. 25,000 in Brazda and 1,200 to 1,400 in Radusa. Brazda is a larger population, so you see a wider variety of people and a bigger range of problems. But in Brazda it  seems a kind of luxury because you do have bigger tents, more  space, more air and freedom of movement. In Radusa, the tents  are so close together that you can't even walk between them. But the people are more settled. They are not transit. They are not coming in and going out. It is a more stable population. They get to  know each other and can support each other. Also, in Radusa the children received new jackets and new running shoes. They have food utensils as well.

In Brazda the people are coming in and going out so quickly. Although there are only 25,000 people, the way they circulate it seems that they are 100,000. Some people stay two weeks and some people stay two days. I am not sure why that is. Things that have touched me about Brazda is the type of patients that are coming. A couple of days ago there was an old man that came and Dr. Thaye asked me to give him a bath. I did it together with Marieke. We washed him. He was resisting -  striking at us - but he was clearly an old man. He was on the edge of  death. While we were washing him we thought about how he had arrived here.  

He was paralysed. He was dying. He was old. How did his family get him here all the way from Kosovo to the camp and how did they care for him all the way down to here? He was clearly a dignified member of the family, but he was put in a tent. His family had to take care of him and they obviously did not know anything about medical care - how to deal with a person with a catheter or how to bathe a person. And one hour after we bathed him, he died.

Another man who came to the camp was paralysed from the waist down. Dr. Thaye called me to give him a bath. When I went to  see him he was lying on a stretcher, the blanket underneath him was completely soaked in urine. I brought him into the tent and I asked his nephew, who was with him, whether he could go home to the tent and get some clean clothes. The nephew ran home and came back with the wife of the patient.

I had no warm water at this moment but I had some sponges and soap and I tried to undress him in parts. The wife insisted on bathing him. She would not let me bathe him but I tried to work with her. So I held him over on a side while she washed him and we took away all the urine soaked blankets. We then put some plastic so that we could keep him dry and shifted him to another bed. His wife was chanting all the time, but I did not understand her. I asked my translator what she was talking about. She was saying: "God bless you". And I said: "God bless you, not me". I mean she came all the way down from Kosovo with this paralysed man and she is taking care of him in the tent and she is bathing him. I am not doing  anything. This is my job. But the translator said, no, she says "God bless you" because for her there is nothing left. She has no home, no place to go and for her it is finished. We continued to wash her husband and she continued to chant. After we had finished I noticed his knees were turning blue because it was really cold outside. We covered him up with blankets and, after that, suddenly the wife of the husband put her arms around me and kissed me, with tears in her eyes, mine as well.  

One of the most horrible cases I have seen was a man who from his waist down was blue like a gym bag. He had been tortured and beaten. In all the emergencies I have worked, I have never seen any person bruised that much. It was very difficult for me to imagine that someone could do that to another person. If you see the wounds on the persons and you hear their stories and you visualise what they have gone through, it is totally incomprehensible.

Many of the people who come to see us have respiratory infections or chronic diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes. They sometimes need tuberculosis treatment. The people we are working with have lived in a country where they have higher technology than in Africa, for  instance. They are in need of services that you and I would need. We provide basic medical care, dressing, wound care and also drugs for some chronic diseases. But they also need a place to live and that is one of the biggest problem here at the moment.

In terms of treatment needs, the mental health of the refugees is a big issue of importance. A lot of what we are doing is psychological support. Many people that we see are not very sick but they have a huge need for attention - they need to talk to somebody.