Doctors without Borders: Where Age is an Advantage

June 28, 2010

Working as a mental health officer in Sudan and Uganda
By Claudia Blume

When Catherine McGarva trained to be a nurse and midwife in the 1960s, she dreamed of going overseas and using her skills for humanitarian work. But she never found the time. She got married, had four children and a busy career in her native Scotland.

After working as a nurse for ten years, McGarva went back to university to study psychology. She specialized in health psychology, addictions and severe mental illness and eventually became a consultant clinical psychologist for Scotland’s national health system. At age 62, McGarva had achieved everything she wanted to achieve professionally. Her children were grown, and she even had two grandchildren. If she was ever going to follow her dreams, she realized, it was now or never.

In 2006, she contacted the international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors without Borders in London. She was worried about her age, but to her surprise she was invited to an interview a few weeks later and was soon offered a position as a mental health officer in Uganda.

Doctors Without Borders For seven months, she supported local mental health specialists in helping patients in several refugee camps with up to 40,000 inhabitants. Each counselor was responsible for hundreds of patients.

It was a tense time. The Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group was involved in an armed struggle with the Ugandan government. Ambushes and kidnappings were common. Many people in the camps were suffering from post-traumatic stress, especially children. Some child soldiers, who had been abducted by the rebels, were coming home after years of abuse and displayed severe mental health problems because of the trauma they had suffered. Many were rejected by their communities because of the atrocities they had committed.

McGarva says that in many ways the mental health problems she found in Uganda — such as anxiety and depression — were similar to those she had been treating in Scotland. But in Uganda, there was a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. Accusations of witchcraft were common. The way in which communities dealt with mentally ill people was something the Western-trained psychologist had trouble getting used to at first.“People with mental illnesses and learning disabilities are often chained to trees to protect the community, because they can be aggressive.” But she says that they were treated well, given food and clothing, and that they were also chained up for their own protection. “One night a mentally ill woman was wandering outside the camp and she was immediately killed by soldiers,” she recalls.

Despite working in very difficult circumstances, she found the job very rewarding.”You have to think on your feet. It’s challenging, but I love a challenge,” she says. “I like to be able to use my knowledge and skills to do good work and improve people’s lives.”

Refugees in the Zam Zam camp in the Darfur region of the Sudan. 1/Jul/2004. Sudan. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

After an extended break in Scotland to look after her ailing son, Catherine McGarva went on a second seven-months mission for MSF — this time in Sudan’s Darfur region, where she worked in the biggest camp for internally displaced people in the world.

The camp was often under attack, preventing McGarva and her colleagues from visiting patients. Her working conditions were tough. Threats against her and her colleagues were common. To reach the camp, the team members had to pass several military checkpoints and were never sure if they would be let through. The psychologist’s work involved convincing families not to kill unmarried girls who were pregnant because they had been raped. She also used her nursing skills whenever there was a need.

McGarva had one big advantage compared to many of her female colleagues working in this conservative society, where women play a subordinate role: Her age. “They listened to me more than to a younger woman,” she says. “The fact that I was older also made things more human. Even the soldiers would call me hoboba Catherine, which means grandmother. At one point, the soldiers only agreed to let our car through a checkpoint after I had talked to them. From then on, the team made sure I was always on the passenger seat!”

Just as in Darfur, local people in Uganda, where the average life expectancy is 45, always had a lot of respect for McGarva. Being older also had another advantage: unlike many younger doctors and nurses, McGarva was used to working with the low tech equipment available in Darfur and Uganda . “A lot of basic treatments in the field are done in exactly the same way we used to do them in the 1960s,” she says. “The drugs and skin treatments we learned about back then –in those countries, they are still used today.”

This year, the Scottish psychologist shared her experience with Canadians, volunteering as a guide for MSF’s ‘Refugee Camp in the City” exhibition. More than 80,000 Canadians, many of them school children, visited the mock refugee camp in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Waterloo this spring, getting a glimpse of what life is like for the more than 42 million people living in refugee camps all over the world. “In some ways it was like working in a real refugee camp, ” Catherine McGarva laughs. “At the end of each day I was dirty, sweaty and tired!”

The 66-year old is still not quite ready for a quiet life in Scotland. She wants to take on yet another volunteer job for MSF this year. But first, another important mission needs to be accomplished: her daughter’s wedding in September.

If you are interested in volunteering– Doctors Without Borders recruits medical, administrative and logistical support personnel to provide medical care to people in crisis in nearly 60 countries worldwide. Every year, around 3,000 MSF field staff provide lifesaving medical assistance to people who would otherwise be denied access to even the most basic health care. They bring their motivation, professional abilities and practical experience to their work in the field. If you live in New York, Toronto or Montreal you can volunteer in their office as well.

About the Author Claudia Blume is the Interim Press Officer for Doctors Without Borders. She has more than 18 years of experience working as a television, radio and newspaper reporter for major international news organizations in Europe and Asia. She has a passion for international development, which started when she worked as a communication adviser for a Swedish rural development project in Vietnam. She later worked as a consultant for the Asian Development Bank in Manila and went back to school to do an M.A. in Communication for Development. Her work and studies have taken her all over the world including Hong Kong, London, Phillipines, Singapore, Vietnam and France. She currently lives in Canada with her family.

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  • ElderDepot

    Claudia, thanks so much for sharing this insight! I witnessed this firsthand while I was volunteering in Cambodia after graduating from University. My organization’s administrators were a elderly couple who had owned their own hardware store for most of their lives before deciding to volunteer overseas in retirement. In the local culture, which holds immense respect for elders, their age was a great advantage and in our team their life experience proved of great value.

    I hope that your article inspires more retirees to take volunteering overseas.

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