When most of us would run from crisis and conflict, Ruth Jebb has spent more than 10 years running towards it. The Brisbane-based nurse and midwife has been deployed to some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots with the Australian Red Cross. She’s fallen asleep to gunfire ringing in her ears, and survived a carjacking in Sudan. This year she was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal for exceptional courage and devotion to the sick, wounded or disabled in conflict and disaster zones.
What inspired you to become a nurse and aid worker?
After very early exposure to the realities of poverty and humanitarian need in the world, I decided at a young age that I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. I was just five years old when I told my grandfather I wanted to help sick children in Africa. I never gave up on this dream and since I joined the Red Cross, I haven’t looked back.
What was it like when you first joined the Red Cross?
I have to confess; I was one of those people with a romantic ideal of what I was about to experience going into my first mission. I can honestly say this dramatically changed the minute I arrived on my first deployment. Crashed planes from the week before lined the runway when I landed and continual gunfire kept me awake that first night. I was homesick and completely overwhelmed.
However, the minute I started working and doing what I was there to do – caring for the large numbers of wounded combatants and civilians who had spilled over the border from the conflict in South Sudan – this completely changed. For me this was a defining moment, which became my drive to keep going.
Your work with the Red Cross has taken you around the world – Kenya, the Philippines, Haiti. Which country made the biggest impact?
In 2007 I was deployed with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a nine-month mission to Gereida, Darfur, in the western part of Sudan. Gereida was home to nearly 145,000 internally displaced persons. Most had moved into camps to ensure they had access to basic necessities, such as shelter, food, clean water, and healthcare.
My job was to manage ICRC’s Therapeutic Feeding Centre. I was responsible for managing referrals, admissions, discharges, transfers, and the nutritional and medical care of malnourished children and lactating and pregnant women. It was a challenging mission, not only a result of looking after so many undernourished and often dying children, but also because of the ongoing security risks that were a reality of our day-to-day life.
On one occasion, my vehicle was hijacked at gunpoint while I was still in it. I was allowed to leave the vehicle unhurt, but that incident had an ongoing and significant impact on our ability to do what we were there to do. This was definitely the hardest and in many ways the most rewarding mission I’ve done.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an aid worker?
There are so many challenges to humanitarian work. It can be incredibly frustrating to be held back by security incidents that involve life and death situations among the community I’m there to assist. And looking after critically ill patients with limited resources is always hard, particularly in developing contexts.
What has brought you the most satisfaction?
I realised early on in my career that I had far more to learn and gain, than I had to offer. I’ve had moments where I’ve asked myself, ‘What on earth am I doing?’ But each time these feelings have completely paled in significance when I begin to care for those in need.
There is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that is often difficult to describe as it also comes with an awareness of not being able to do enough. The difference you make is not always visible until you stop and look at the individuals you’ve helped.
How did it feel to be awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal?
It was both overwhelming and incredibly humbling. Humanitarian work has been my passion for more than a decade now, so to be acknowledged with an award of this prestige is such an honor.