Johanne Sekkenes

'The most difficult aspect of field work is to witness human suffering. Everywhere MSF works you see enormous human suffering. There is nothing to prepare you for this.'

© Sveinung Uddu Ystad

What is your professional background and why did you choose to work for MSF?

I worked as a nurse in a hospital in Norway for about five years before I did post-graduate studies in international nursing in Sweden. I studied tropical medicine, nutrition, responding to natural disasters, and public health issues. It was during the Rwandan genocide that I started looking for work with a humanitarian organization. MSF has a policy to recruit first-assignment staff, so that projects get new perspectives and experiences.

Describe your first assignment as a field nurse in a conflict zone?

At the end of 1994, I was sent to Kuito, in war-torn Angola. Kuito had been under siege for months, so MSF had to evacuate its international staff. I was part of the team that returned to the hospital, which we found damaged and understaffed because some of the nurses and doctors had fled, were killed, or couldn’t return because their circumstances didn’t allow them to do so. The nurses that remained had a strong will to continue their work and did an excellent job considering the situation.

Our priority was to address the most urgent needs, which were mainly war-surgery and nutrition for young children. During this time, the population had no contact with the outside world and no food, so there was a scarcity of everything. Daily, we received a lot of land mine injuries, gunshot and other war-related wounds, which we took care of in a makeshift operating theater in an apartment building because that part of the hospital was damaged by the war. Our logistical team went about quickly rehabilitating the surgical wards, operating theater, and the nutritional center in the hospital. We had to physically bring in the medical supplies, drugs, etc., because the only way into Kuito was by airplane since the war was still continuing and the roads were not safe.

What did you find the most challenging part of being in the field?

The most difficult aspect of field work is to witness human suffering. Everywhere MSF works you see enormous human suffering. There is nothing to prepare you for this. You think, you know . . . children are not supposed to die of malnutrition today because we have effective treatments.

How did you deal with seeing such suffering? Do you have advice for a new field nurse on a first assignment on how to handle the suffering that he or she will see?

It is very important to talk about what you feel with your team members because this is a shared experience and they, of all people, will understand better than others who have not worked in such crises. This is the reason why teams in the field get very, very close. I’ve found that the best support system is with my teammates and now they are friends for life. Another piece of advice is that you should go to the field with a healthy state of mind because you have to process the suffering and that can take a toll.

You’ve had a long career with MSF. Describe your different roles over an almost 15-year period?

Once I started field work, there was no turning back for me. Setting up the post-surgical project in Angola reinforced my desire to do more. I’ve now worked as a nurse, Field Coordinator, Head of Mission, Program Officer, and presently I coordinate operational support for MSF in the U.S. office. In these non-medical roles, I see another dimension of humanitarian work—a global view of the projects. These positions demand making key contacts with government officials, village leaders, parties to a conflict, other NGOs and groups to be astute of any important activities that will affect the population, project, and your staff and to advocate for each patient’s needs.