Wendy Rhymer, Nurse and Midwife, Volunteer with Medecins Sans Frontieres

Wendy’s life and career is fascinating. If she isn’t dealing with walrus-related illness in Canada’s most northern community, then she’s flying somewhere far away to to lend her support on the front lines of a country that is either war-torn or devastated by natural disaster. We are in awe of her determination, selflessness and sense of adventure.

As this week marks the one year anniversary of Haiti’s tragic earthquake, we thought it was an excellent time to introduce you to a Medicins Sans Frontieres volunteer, as this organization has been vital in the healing of Haiti. Although Wendy wasn’t posted in Port-au-Prince, she is a terrific example of the type of hardworking and courageous individuals that make up MSF. Her sound advice is also relevant to most industries and careers.

What does a typical Thursday look like for you, starting from when you wake up – to heading to bed?
Every Thursday is different depending on what country I’m in and what position I’m covering. For half of the year I volunteer as a Nurse/Midwife with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the other half of the year I work as a Community Health Nurse in Northern Canada’s Nursing Stations.

A Typical Thursday – December, 2010 – Grise Fiord, Nunavut
**Grise Fiord is Canada’s most Northerly Community on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. It is Canada’s only one nurse health centre (no doctors), and I am in charge of the health and well-being of the 138 community members. It is also one of the coldest inhabited places in the world.

I wake up at 6:30am to total darkness, which remains all day as we are currently in the dark season (24/7 without any hint of sunlight). I eat my breakfast while checking email and read the Winnipeg Free Press and the BBC World News online. At 8:30am I open the clinic, and I see patients throughout the day, with a variety of health issues. As I am the only medical professional, I attend to all matters related to health from emergency medicine, chronic care, childhood disease, mental health and social problems. There are also unique diseases to be mindful of including Seal Finger and Trichinosis, which is acquired by consuming contaminated walrus meat. The clinic closes at 5pm, but often I stay later to finish charting on patients. I am on call 24 hours a day, so my evening/night is unpredictable day to day. I have patients that I see regularly in the evenings, so I plan my time around these appointments. I spend my evenings talking on the phone, watching movies and baking, but make sure to be in bed early, in case I’m needed overnight.

A Typical Thursday – December, 2009 – Bijapur, Chhattisgarh, India

**Bijapur is a village located in the forested area of Chhattisgarh state. Here we run a Mother and Child Health Centre and five mobile clinics into the interior region, an active conflict zone.

I wake up at 6:00am to the sounds of the water pump outside my window. I have instant coffee and a piece of bread and start to get ready for work. I use a bucket shower and a squatting latrine, so it takes a bit longer to get out the door. We only have electricity about half of the time, so if it is working, and if the internet is up and running, I go to work early to call home on the roof on the office via Skype. The time change allows my morning call to be the evening the day before, for my friends in Canada. At 8:00am we have a full staff meeting then I go to the health centre and round on my patients. We have 1-2 deliveries per week, and our other patients include malnourished children, wound infections and burns. I spend the day teaching the nurse/midwives, assisting in the pharmacy, and providing hands-on care to patients. We see all types of diseases that affect Canadians, but also others like malaria and typhoid. At 4:00pm we close the clinic and round again on our in-patients. I return to the office for our nightly meeting then go home around 7:00pm.

As I am the only experienced nurse/midwife in the project, I am on call 24 hours a day and attend all deliveries. So I always try to head to bed early, as you never know when a baby may decide to make his or her debut.

What was your first job out of school?
High Risk Labour & Delivery Nurse at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

What are the 3 skills you require most to do your job well?
Dedication – I love what I do and believe in my work.
Adaptability – I cannot be prepared for every patient or situation I may encounter, but I’m able to look at what’s available and figure out a way to make it work.
Empathy – A relationship of mutual respect can develop through empathy but not through sympathy. I would not be doing justice for my patients if I pitied them.

What do you love most about your career?
I’ve worked in the some of the most remote and sometimes violent places (Ethiopia, Somalia, Darfur & India) in the world. What I love is the amazing, everyday people I meet along the way. I bring medical care and safe deliveries, and they bring hope and inspiration. Sometimes I wonder who benefits more.

Do you have any warnings?
Working overseas and in remote locations is not for everyone. You may not have a career with transferable skills, or maybe living in isolation with basic conditions is not something with which you would feel comfortable. I am grateful to be able to be a front-line worker, but I wouldn’t be able to deliver a single baby on mission if it wasn’t for the support of my fellow Canadians.

If you could try a different career on for a year, what would it be?
I’ve always loved to throw parties. In Darfur, I helped organize inter-organizational alcohol-free potluck dinners, when we were evacuated from our project and moved into the capital. Just last weekend, I helped organize a mocktail party here in Nunavut, bringing awareness to fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. So I guess if I was to make a career change, it would be to Party Planner.

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