Yukoner comforts Congo’s poor

Trish Newport, 34, spent six months this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, putting her nursing skills to work with Doctors Without Borders.

Trish Newport, 34, spent six months this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, putting her nursing skills to work with Doctors Without Borders.

When the Whitehorse resident returned home this summer, she strolled through the forest and was struck by one thing.

It wasn’t the absence of sweltering heat, tropical diseases or endemic malnutrition – although those conditions all make the Congo a very different place than the Yukon.

“It was the first time I had been by myself for six months, without worrying about being attacked by armed rebels,” said Newport. “We take for granted our safety, which is huge.”

Newport will share her experiences on Friday, during a fundraiser for the Fair Aid Society. The Whitehorse-based aid group, started by Joanne Leung and Jeff Spiers in 2006, runs two medical clinics in the Kisanga neighbourhood of Lubumbashi, the Congo’s second-biggest city.

During her trip to the Congo, Newport met people who had been treated by the Fair Aid Society “who probably would have died if they didn’t have access to free health care.”

The non-profit operates one clinic that provides free health care to the poor, and another, opened last year, that offers services for a fee.

It’s hoped that revenue from the fee-based clinic will eventually pay for the operations of the free one, so that both outfits can run without foreign money. Then the aid group can focus on new projects.

“I believe in the aid they’re giving, because it empowers local health-care professionals,” said Newport.

She will talk on Friday about her own experiences and how they relate to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000, which aim to eliminate extreme poverty in 15 years.

With five years left, there’s “little hope” of most goals being met, said Newport.

Another speaker will be Maureen Crill, a Whitehorse nurse with more than 19 years of humanitarian aid experience.

Newport began working with Doctors Without Borders in 2009, when she helped deliver aid in Djibouti, a small country northwest of Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Still, she was “amazed at how dire the situation was” in the Congo.

Consider the residents of Banda, a remote community in the far-flung northern reaches of the country. In March of 2009, fighters with the Lord’s Resistance Army who’d been pushed out of their homeland in Uganda, raided their village.

Machete-wielding rebels hacked to death 12 residents and kidnapped another 40 – including two staff of Doctors Without Borders, who luckily later escaped. Others weren’t so lucky.

Those who fled into the jungle needed to trek nearly 200 kilometres to reach the next nearest village, Dingila.

That’s where Newport spent much of her time, working in a hospital and two health centres. The village’s population had nearly doubled, to 18,000 from 10,000. The refugees who arrived had no food and little tools to earn a living.

Newport encountered one woman who carried a malnourished baby girl, 12 months old, who weight just three kilograms. The girl’s legs were thinner than Newport’s pinky fingers.

This starvation is a manmade disaster. “The Congo’s lush. It’s jungle. There shouldn’t be malnutrition.”

Preventable diseases worsen the situation. Children often have untreated respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, or a parasitic infection. “A little kid who’s sick doesn’t eat much,” said Newport. Soon, “they’re too weak to eat.”

And in tropical countries cuts quickly fester without antibiotics, due to the hot, humid conditions that allow bacteria to flourish. Such infections often lead to gangrene, which in turn leads to limbs having to be amputated.

Newport never did encounter armed rebels. But she had her own health scare when she came down with malaria in the field.

“I’ve never sweated so much in my life,” she said. “It’s like an intense flu – a very intense flu.

“I totally thought I was going to die. I cannot describe the feeling of horridness in my body.”

But Newport remains undeterred.

Next week she flies to Niger, where she will spend the next seven months working in a 340-bed hospital that’s dedicated to treating severely malnourished children. The country experienced one of it’s worst famines on record this year. More than 100,000 extremely malnourished children there have been treated so far.

“I’m a snowbird,” Newport said with a laugh.

Friday’s event will also feature an African dinner and silent auction. It’s being held at the CYO hall of Sacred Heart Cathedral at 406 Steele Street.

Tickets are $30, available at the Alpine Bakery and the Medicine Chest pharmacy.

Contact John Thompson at