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South Africa

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I help save lives

Sara Hjalmarson has chosen to spend her life giving care to people desperate for help.

Sara Hjalmarson
Sara Hjalmarson

Helping others is not new to me. My parents were missionaries in Zambia, and it was probably this experience that led me to a career in nursing in my home country of Sweden.

“But, although I was giving my services, I still felt that I wasn’t doing enough. So, years ago, I packed my things into a very small bag and headed to Sierra Leone to work on a malaria project. I remember sitting at the airport before I left, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing? I’m about to be sent into the wild, and I just don’t know if I can cut it’.

“They say you either sink or swim, and the conditions weren’t as bad as I expected. I was working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) – known as Doctors Without Borders in English – and they looked after us well.

“After that, I went to south Sudan. This was a tough one. There were only tents to live in, and a hole in the ground for a toilet. There was just a midwife, a doctor, and me to give medical care to the people in the remote area where we were stationed.

They had to fly food to us, and the only ways to get to the nearest hospital were by plane, weather permitting, or by boat if the river’s water level was high enough.

“Some patients stick in your mind. In Sudan, we had a young boy who struggled for weeks to survive. He needed to be in hospital but, because of the heavy rains, we couldn’t get him there. At last, when a plane did arrive, I ran outside with him in my arms. As I was going through the mud, it occurred to me that this was exactly how the movies made it look – the glitz and the glam of saving lives. Only it wasn’t even close, because I had a real child in my arms who could very possibly die. I heard later that he had survived. That kind of news makes it all worthwhile.

“I had a real child in my arms who could possibly die”

“My next placement was in Musina, in South Africa. Here, I took on the role of project coordinator for the first time, handling budgets, training and planning, as well as nursing. We were still dealing with the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks that had occurred, when we had to deal with a cholera outbreak as well.

“I remember one patient from that time: she had been gang-raped while crossing the border into South Africa. When I first saw her, I didn’t think she would survive. That kind of brutality made my blood run cold. Thankfully, she pulled through and, after a lot of treatment, she has moved on and is happy. We still write to each other.

“Now, I’m a project coordinator at a primary healthcare clinic in the Johannesburg CBD. Our main aim is to provide care for migrants, but anyone is welcome at our facility.

“Sometimes, I think about what it would be like had I chosen a ‘normal’ life. My friends in Sweden are starting families and buying houses, and occasionally it makes me long for a permanent place to settle down. But that’s not me; that’s not my definition of normal. To me, normal is travelling, meeting new people, and helping save lives in places I would never have dreamt of seeing.

“I have gained so much more than I’ve missed.”

Text by Nikki Stevenson, Photography by Pieter Vosloo, Make-up Charlie Runge, Venue Zar Bar, Radisson Blue Hotel. This article was taken from the January 2011 issue of Cleo.

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