Rossland native Patrice Gordon remembers that feeling of fear, when she looked down 800 metres into the Trisuli River as her driver navigated on the edge of a steep, narrow road in Dunche, Nepal.
It’s been months now since Gordon left her post as a team leader for a Canadian Red Cross Emergency Response Unit. The nurse practitioner is back at home on Horn Lake in the Chilcotin area but on a disaster alert list awaiting her next call to provide care to refugees in Greece.
“It gives you that sense of vulnerability,” she said. “You kind of realize that the earth is capable of doing stuff and we have no control, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Nothing but accept it and move on. That’s what the Nepalese did when a quake measuring 7.8 struck April 25, followed by a powerful 7.3 tremor on May 12.
Gordon wasn’t sure what she was in for when she headed over three months after the quakes for a four-week stint.
She relives her time away, finally giving it proper reflection when she visits with her vast patient group at home.
Back in Nepal, the pounding monsoon rain was soothing at night when she finally clocked out of an 18-hour workday. Her sound sleep broke when a landslide set off in the distance, and she began to count the time from the beginning to the end, 12 seconds marking a record.
Her wake-up call would get her out of bed in the middle of the night to check emails from Ottawa. The team leader was among 16 people delivering primary care for the Nepalese out of a field hospital, treating respiratory infections, diarrhea illnesses, skin diseases and even a few snake bites.
As monsoon season picked up, mud washed into drinking water and at times the water managed to sweep through isolated toilet areas, causing contamination.
The team’s work stretched beyond the hospital’s walls. The group set out to tent cities to connect with the people and see firsthand what they needed in hopes of preventing the spread of sickness in poor living conditions.
“It was really heartwarming to see that what we were doing was assisting these people, was improving where they were living,” she said. “It was something as simple as digging a trench around a tent, so the water runs around it, not through it.”
She continues to follow the work done in Dunche by keeping in touch with local medical professionals, much like she does with her contacts in Africa.
Ebola was at its height when she went to work in Sierra Leone in 2014.
“The whole Ebola epidemic felt so out of control at that point,” she recalled. “It felt like are we ever going to be able to beat this because we weren’t making any headway.”
According to the World Health Organization’s latest sit rep, for the first time since March 2014 there have been no new cases in the past week in any of the three most affected countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Gordon was relieved to get this update.
“I look at these numbers now and realize that they were inconceivable at the height of the outbreak when I was there,” she said. “I’m weak with relief when I think about how back then, sometimes it seemed impossible that it would ever end.”
Gordon received medical observation to rule out any likelihood of Ebola, upon return from her stint in Sierra Leone. Despite her work always having risks, she is waiting for her next assignment.
“One of the really remarkable things that I’m finding with working in these kinds of settings is that people have so much hardship in their lives, and yet they still are happy,” she said. “They still find joy in the sort of little things that are really meaningful.”
Coming back to North America where people are spoiled with resources and support can be tricky at times.
Gordon recalls going grocery shopping at Ferraro Foods in Rossland after nursing in Afghanistan and bursting into tears as she looked at the options, the wealth of options she had at home.
“We have hundreds of choices of breakfast cereal, and I’m still incredibly moved by that thought, it’s such a crazy thing, and it was so powerful.”
Gordon still owns a home in Rossland but currently lives and works in a real rural setting that is much easier to integrate gradually back into after working overseas.
The Interior Health nurse practitioner works in eight different health centres in First Nation’s communities, covering a 350-kilometre range. The remote medical care she provides at home is not far off from the kind of work she does through Red Cross.
Gordon is waiting to hear back on the mission in Greece and could be expected to head over at the end of the month. She is overwhelmed by the refugee crisis but is ready to lend a hand.
“These people need help and I think it’s important to look at it with a narrow lens,” she said. “If we back up and look at the big picture, it can give us that sense of hopelessness and make our small contributions feel like they can’t make a dent in this gigantic issue.
“But it is all the small contributions that add up. It’s just so easy to lose sight of that.”