Doctors Without Borders/Medécins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is the world’s largest independent emergency medical relief organization. Each year, the organization sends more than 2,000 volunteers to work in countries where wars, natural and man-made disasters, epidemics and lack of access to health care put populations at risk. As one of the organization’s volunteers, Kathleen Mahoney worked in Boa Vista, Brazil and the Javari region. A dedicated humanitarian, this 28-year-old registered nurse trained local health promoters to diagnose malaria and to recognize and treat other diseases that plague their communities.
For the past three years Mahoney, a native of Wellesley, MA and currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate nursing program, navigated treacherous Amazonian rivers, mountains and jungles to reach villagers in need of health care. From Boa Vista, a town of 100,000, she traveled by small plane, boat, horse and on foot to 40 villages throughout the region. Mahoney was part of Doctors Without Borders’ effort to help indigenous people to sustain themselves amid the rise of malaria and other health care woes.
“As a young nurse, Kathy could have chosen a much easier path to practice her profession, but her desire to help those most in need led her to venture to a region where modern conveniences were non-existent,” remarked Joelle Tanguy, Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders USA, “Through her nursing expertise and show of respect toward native medicine, she was able to combine Western medical treatment with natural remedies familiar to the region.”
Doctors Without Borders, which won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, launched the project in northern Brazil in 1993, to control a malaria epidemic brought on by mining in the area. The region, rich in gold, had attracted prospectors as well as their diseases, to which the indigenous populations have no resistance. As part of a Doctors Without Borders team, Mahoney, together with local organizations, provided microscopes to nearly 40 villages and launched a training program for indigenous people to diagnose and treat malaria. There is now at least one trained microscopist in each village and the number of annual cases of malaria in the area has been cut by almost half since the project began.
During her nearly three years in the Amazon, Mahoney worked with numerous indigenous populations in their own communities. Teams took small planes to an airstrip in the mountains, and then hiked on foot or took a canoe or horse to remote villages, carrying boxes of medicine and equipment like IV kits and first aid materials.
Once she arrived in a village, Mahoney teamed up with local health workers and exchanged knowledge as they attended to patients together. She traveled from house to house by canoe through waters rife with snakes, alligators and piranhas. In addition to malaria, Mahoney treated many cases of pneumonia, hepatitis, skin infection, urinary tract infection, flu and local illness. At night, she slept in a hammock that she would hang up in the local school or health post, eating a diet of cassava root, beans and local grains.
“It was very difficult for me to imagine that this would be my daily routine,” says Kathy, “but now I can’t imagine not doing it. It has been an incredible learning experience.”
The educational process between Doctors Without Borders volunteers and indigenous health workers is mutual. Mahoney learned a great deal about traditional treatments while training health workers in modern medical practices. The Brazil program’s overall success has gained it much support and it has already been taken over by a local health organization.