Doctors Without Borders nurse to speak at Lyceum Lecture Series

Dianna Wray

April 5, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
Updated April 7, 2013 at 11:08 p.m.

As the plane taxied to a stop, the heat rolled in. As the doors opened, Mary Lightfine could hear the sputter of gunfire.

In an instant, Lightfine, an emergency room nurse who thought she'd seen it all, realized she was in Somalia.

Lightfine will talk about her experience with Doctors Without Borders as the latest Victoria College Lyceum Lecture Series speaker at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the VISD Fine Arts Center. Her lecture is titled "Nurse Without Boundaries."

As a child, she'd spent hours imagining herself in the world of Tarzan - an Africa populated with elephants, grass huts and people from exotic other worlds.

She still carried that fantasy with her when she boarded the plane to become a part of the nascent Doctors Without Borders program. Stepping off the plane, it hit that she had been wrong - Somalia was unlike anything she had ever imagined.

Lightfine didn't exactly want to be a nurse - she planned on going to veterinary school - but her mother was sure it was the right path for her. Her mother told Lightfine she'd pay for college only if she studied nursing.

She entered a two-year program in Ohio, and the moment she got the chance to help her first patients, she was hooked.

After graduation, she worked in emergency rooms and hospitals all over the country. After years on the job, she began to feel she'd seen it all.

She loved Tarzan movies as a kid. She spent hours riding her pony around the family farm, pretending the pony was an elephant, the farm was Africa and she was Tarzan. She'd leap from the pony to help a friend with a scraped knee or perform daring feats of imaginary bravery, wishing she could see the real Africa.

As an adult, she still wanted to go to the place with grass huts and elephants.

One day in 1992, she was sitting on her couch watching the news when a segment came on about Somalia, a country engaged in civil war and in the grip of famine.

"Somalia wasn't like it is now. Nobody really knew about it in the early 1990s," she said.

The newspaper had just run a story about an international program sending people in the medical field to Somalia. Something clicked in Lightfine's head.

"I'm going there," she thought.

She looked up Somalia on the map. The country was so unknown to her, she thought it might be in Asia. She got in touch with an area doctor who was part of the program. Three weeks later, she was in Somalia.

It wasn't like the Tarzan movies. That much was clear.

She watched men with AK-47s strapped to their backs run toward the plane. They started hefting suitcases out of it, and she realized these men were employees.

By the time she reached the hospital, the knowledge had sunk in. This wasn't like anything she'd pictured or prepared for.

There were only 30 actual beds in the 700-bed hospital, and the plumbing didn't work.

There were few supplies, and employees struggled to keep the ones they had from being stolen.

They couldn't store blood for transfusions because there was no way to refrigerate it.

They were dealing with gunshot wounds, gangrene, malnutrition, cholera, injuries from explosions and diphtheria without some of the most basic supplies for treatment.

Lightfine took in the reality around her and sat down with the other nurses to figure out what to do. They found ways to get more supplies and figured out how to keep them from being swiped.

They came up with ways to train area volunteers, who often had no medical training but were willing pairs of hands.

As time passed, every assumption Lightfine had about Somalia, about people, about human nature, dropped away.

There was a man who hung around the area she lived selling handmade items to people in the area. One day, he was shot. Lightfine and some of her neighbors threw him in the back of a van and raced across town to get to the hospital. Once there, they realized he needed a blood transfusion. They had no way to check blood types or to store the blood once it was donated, so they asked people who knew they were O-negative to volunteer and give a bag of blood. Someone gave the patient the blood transfusion while they went searching for another donor.

People stepped up.

"We gave 11 bags of blood. He lost his leg, but he survived," Lightfine said.

She still revels in the victory of that moment.

Over the years, she continued her work with Doctors Without Borders, working in war-torn regions around the world including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

She wrote a book about her experiences: "Nurses, Nomads and Warlords."

After her time in Somalia, Lightfine moved to New York City to continue her work with the organization.

One night, she got on a train and every seat was filled except for one next to a man who looked like a gang member.

Maybe she'd have hesitated before sitting down next to him once, but Lightfine knew - the lesson had been drilled into her mind repeatedly in Somalia - not to judge people based on what they presented to the world.

She plunked down in the seat next to him and started chatting.

"I enjoyed that whole train ride, and I got to know that man and to hear about his life."

He was a gang member, and he looked different, but he was just a man with a story like every other man. Somalia had taught her that.

"It taught me a lot about life in general," she said. "Respect everyone and don't fear them because they look different than you or because they come from a different country. In showing them kindness, your life will be better. You don't know it at the time, but your life will be the better for it."



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