Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.
Adeline Oliver, 67, nurse
“We finally came to a clearing, where we are now crossing into Syria. The field coordinator said to me, ‘run when I say run’.”
Volunteers for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, focus on delivering emergency medical aid in areas of crisis.
Adeline Oliver, a South African, has been an Operation Theater nurse for the last 35 years.
She was 60 years old when she joined MSF. She had retired from an active nursing job, and didn’t know what she was going to do with her life.
One day, her daughter called and told her she had made an appointment on her behalf for an interview at MSF.
“I knew at the time that it’s what I would have liked to do, my life wasn’t over. I am healthy, and wanted to give back. I’ve got enough experience, skills and knowledge wouldn’t be knowledge if it was not shared,” says Oliver.
Little did she know that in just two weeks, she would be leaving the cosy comfort of her Johannesburg home and be on a flight to war-torn Afghanistan, where she would be for six months on her first assignment with MSF.
She recalls the country as very poor and the people exploited. Their homes had been bombed, they were living in shelters or the streets and sold every little thing they had.
She witnessed terrible fatalities during her stay there.
“A woman came with a pitch black foot and I questioned why she hadn’t come in earlier because the foot happened over a period of time, but later, when a family member related the story, I was ashamed. They were traveling through these horrible roads in the mountains, they encountered bandits on the way and the family members were killed, and the poor woman had been brought to hospital. She died two weeks later.”
Oliver managed to save some of the lives with her expertise.
Syria was her second assignment, when the civil war had just begun.
Her long journey to reach the MSF field hospital in Syria’s Idlib government took her on a midnight hike through forests and past the ruins of Aleppo. When she finally reached her destination it was just before sunrise. After two hours of sleep she joined the rest of the team to start working in the hospital MSF had set up inside a cave.
“In the cave were a fully-equipped operating room, and a fully-equipped emergency room. It’s a huge cave. Once it was closed it was just another hill”.
From this unusual location where Adeline and her team provided life-saving medical care for several months to people who needed it most – regardless of their political affiliation or social status.
This was in a rebel area just outside Aleppo; the historic city had been completely destroyed.
Their first patient was a pregnant woman, injured in a bomb blast. Oliver managed to save her but her unborn child didn’t survive.
“The baby took the hit and died in the woman’s womb. So we had to do an emergency caesarean section. Luckily, the cave was well-equipped and we could do life-saving operations,” she says.
Oliver has worked in challenging circumstances in South Sudan, South Africa (during the xenophobic attacks), in Afghanistan several times, and Syria, Turkey, Yemen, and most recently Iraq.
Monica Genya, 43, logistician
“The first thing I heard was machine gunfire…”
With all the traveling doctors and nurses at MSF do, someone has to be accountable for all the logistics; lives can’t be saved without the correct equipment or movement of people and goods.
Monica Genya has worked with MSF for 24 years around the world as a logistician. Straight after college, she joined the organization and wanted to make a difference.
“My job is to make sure the camps are working smoothly for our medical personnel. It means getting all the supplies necessary to put up out-patient departments so doctors can come in and see patients and dispense medication,” she explains.
The first place she worked in was Somalia, in a tiny port town called Kismayo, south of Mogadishu and closer to the Kenyan border, which was besieged. Theirs was the only hospital in the entire town because the country was at war.
She was just out of her teens at the time, assisting to source supplies in Kenya, making sure they got airlifted to Kismayo because it was quicker and safer.
“When I landed in Kismayo for the first time, the first thing I heard was machine gunfire…tadadadadada, tadadada. It was constant and I was scared witless,” she recalls.
She was terrified by the gunfire, and slept under the bed until she got used to the staccato sounds three days later.
She also had to get used to not sitting up straight at breakfast on the rooftop dining areas because she was afraid she would get hit by stray bullets.
Soon, Genya set up tents and medical equipment to save lives, forgetting her life could be in danger too.
“There was a time when the hospital was besieged in Kismayo by invading forces. We were forced to go into a bunker and lock ourselves in and hide. We could hear the invaders going from room to room asking where the doctors were. Eventually they gave up and walked out. At that point, you realize that things could be really bad if you were found. That was a profoundly scary moment,” she says.
But that was nothing compared to Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis in 2014.
“If it’s a man with a gun, you might be able to plead, reason or negotiate. Probably not, but in your head you are thinking this is a person like me. But there is no negotiating with Ebola,” she says.
While Genya was in Sierra Leone, she lost two colleagues to Ebola; one was a medical doctor and the other a guard at a warehouse. Three more were infected but managed to receive treatment and survived.
Thousands contracted the virus across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. As a logistician, she had to stay the longest to make sure everything that was needed was in place for both the medical staff and patients. Sadly, half the Ebola victims died but a quarter of the population survived due to the help of Doctors Without Borders, she says.
The cholera outbreak in Zambia was yet another project Genya successfully worked on.
“One of the many interesting things to know about cholera, besides the much-needed medical attention, is mainly the logistics intervention; it means we have to get a cholera camp up and running, as quickly as possible to start receiving patients,” she says.
It called for a great amount of experience, and quick action. Cholera kits had to be readily available, as the disease can kill in 48 hours.
“So we have to be there as quickly as possible to minimize the death toll and we have to do it in 48 hours. Within that time frame, we are able to receive medical personnel and start receiving patients. Our job is to make sure that whatever you need is where you need it when you need it, but if what you need is not where you need it when you need it, then lives are lost. There is no point in having a doctor there if there are no IV fluids,” says Genya, proving that you don’t have to be a medical doctor to save lives.
Nthabiseng Mogale, 25, paramedic
“Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person.”
Nthabiseng Mogale qualified as a professional medic in 2014 in Johannesburg. She has since saved countless lives working out of an emergency room on wheels.
But even today, she admits to being nervous every time she gets a call out.
“You don’t know what kind of an accident you are going to find. You get to an accident and someone has a broken leg, or a scratch, some of them are horrible and traumatic. Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person. This job is difficult, but it’s also lovely because you get to save lives.”
She recalls one morning when she received a call about a seven-year-old, who was involved in an accident and suffered brain injury. The child had been sleeping since the night before, and didn’t wake up the following morning.
“Calls about children are more emotional than any others. That little, tiny body lying there, dead, not breathing, not responding, is not nice, it’s never nice actually,” says Mogale, who is a young mother herself.
Recently, she received another call, this time from Midrand, north of Johannesburg, at around 1PM. It was an old man who had low sugar levels and a history of heart failure; he also had high blood pressure and hypertension. On the day, he was not responding.
She checked the vitals – blood pressure, heart rate and sugar. The sugar was low, he had a variant heart rhythm and there was nothing they could do about it.
“In my scope of practice, you give sugar to that kind of person; if you give a drip, that water will hydrate the body, you give oxygen, the blood flows and it will bring color back. So I gave him sugar, he woke up, the drip hydrated him, he woke up and he started coughing, I asked him how he was and he said ‘I am not well but I am awake’.” She had saved his life.
The gratitude from her patients is what keeps Mogale going.
“Just a thank you is more than enough,” she says.
These are everyday heroes, fearless and loyal to the call of duty.