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Aiding medical work abroad

July 7, 2008

Alumna aids medical work abroad

The dirt landscape of southern Sudan stretches for miles, and roads are few and far between. Villages dot the landscape. One of these villages, over the last decade, has grown particularly large. Located hundreds of miles from any road, this village is anchored by a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) health care center. It provides care to the hundreds of people suffering from hunger, disease and the conflict of Sudan’s 30-year war. All medical supplies must be flown in.

This is the end of the world. It’s a place Ingrid Ford ’97 knows well. A graduate of PLU’s School of Nursing, she visited the site periodically while working for MSF. She saw the people who traveled hundreds of miles, often on foot, to be seen by the doctors and nurses at this remote outpost. This influx of people underscores why Ford spent six years with MSF in Africa and France: she believes access to health care is a basic human right.

“I don’t care where you live or what your government is or what your religious beliefs are or that you’re 1,000 kilometers from the closest road,” she said, her piercing blue eyes flashing. “You’re a human being, and that means, at the minimum, we need food, water, shelter, health care, freedom.”

As a child, the Anacortes, Wash., native knew she wanted to work overseas. She never imagined how that one thought would shape the trajectory of her life, taking her from Kenya and Ivory Coast, Africa, to New York and Paris.

“I think sometimes in the beginning, you can’t say why you do what you do,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just listening to those little things that don’t maybe seem practical.”

Her career began practically enough. She entered PLU’s School of Nursing, but the work Ford would pursue overseas coalesced during her senior year when PLU introduced the first study away program for nurses. Along with 11 classmates, Ford spent a semester working in clinics on the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

“Working there,” Ford recalled, “changes your whole perception about life and what you want to do.”

After graduation, she spent a few years gaining practical nursing experience, and then began the process of applying for work abroad. Her criteria were specific, severely limiting her options. She wanted to focus on medical aid, without missionary work or fund raising to pay her way. Only MSF contacted her. She had two strikes against her – she was young and spoke only English. It was her PLU experience in international health care that got her hired.

MSF quickly put that experience to the test.

Ford first served a year in western Kenya, working in projects providing treatment for tuberculosis and for HIV/AIDS using anti-retroviral drugs. There, she witnessed how the virus has deteriorated the African family structure. Traditionally, extended families live together. But with an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 40 percent, too many children are left orphaned. Grandparents, aunts and uncles are unable to care for all of them.

Less then a year later, Ford spent three months in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, coordinating a project that provides basic health care and sanitation to prisoners. The prison was extremely overcrowded; there was a lack of water, and severe malnutrition and disease were rampant. Her team faced medical emergencies daily, including a serious outbreak of beriberi, a potentially fatal disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin B1.

The projects, while rewarding, were exhausting, and Ford gave up working in the field. Eventually, she joined MSF’s Paris office, where she worked placing doctors and nurses on projects in Chad, Iran and Sudan, projects much like the remote health care facility in Sudan’s war-torn south.

The years abroad have taken a toll. While she’s passionate about the work of MSF, the slim, 33-year-old brunette is also conflicted. Now back in the United States bringing her unique experience to her hometown hospital, she struggles with what it really means to “help” people.

“It’s not as clear cut as you would like,” she explained. “How do they define what they need, and then how do we define what they need?”

The answer might lie with a group of adolescents she mentored in Kenya. The group was trying to educate their community – particularly its youth – about HIV/AIDS. The stakes were high – she knew if they didn’t succeed, then everyone in the community would likely die.

She, of course, could not stay there forever. The community of Kenyans did not have that luxury. When she left, Ford felt like a failure abandoning the group.

Years later, she heard from the leader of the group that the Kenyan community was doing well. She thinks her brief time with the group, and the training and support she provided, were just what they needed to stick together long enough for them take the next step.

“You just never know what your impact is going to be,” Ford explained. “Maybe it was small … but maybe my work with the youth group helped them get to where they were ready for the next step.”

It is something she can take with her wherever she goes – in Africa or Anacortes. No gesture is insignificant. No effort is too small.

“Our interactions in our daily life can be meaningful,” she added. “You don’t necessarily have to go to Africa to do important things. There’s just as important things to do in Tacoma as there is in Kenya.”