A life lesson from a Humanitarian Nurse
I wanted to share with you today a message I received on Facebook. It was from a 14-year-old boy I met when I was volunteering as a Nurse overseas in a refugee camp:
SLIDE 1: Facebook Message
“Hi, I don’t know if you can remember me, but I will never forget you. I remember one day, when I was in the unaccompanied children’s section of the refugee camp, your shiny smile and your kind words stopped me from killing myself. Thank you for saving my life with your amazing words. Heaps of respect and love for you, I wish you all the great things in life”
I cried when I received that message.
Can you believe that? My ‘my shiny smile and my kind words’ stopped a boy from killing himself!
How did I come to be volunteering in a refugee camp overseas in the first place?
Volunteering starts at home.
It starts with your neighbours and extends into the local community. Volunteering then expands out to the international community.
I’ve volunteered overseas as a Nurse and a Paramedic helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people. I’ve volunteered in disaster responses such as the Philippines after typhoon Hyan and Nepal after the earthquake. I also volunteered in Greece during the Syrian Refugee crisis and in Iraq during the conflict.
My pursuit of being a volunteer started at home.
SLIDE 2: Groote Eylandt
Home for me was Groote Eylandt. A remote island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Both my parents are Greek, they migrated to Australia in the 1970’s. My Dad worked on the manganese mine while my mum supported us at home when I was born. We lived on the island until I was 14.
Groote Eylandt is a close-knit community. It is a place where multiculturalism and diversity are the norm and where it doesn’t matter what your background is, people rely on each other to survive in such a remote location.
As a child I joined volunteer organisations in the community where we helped those in need. I learnt how to be creative when problems came up and we had limited resources. If someone had an accident and needed a wheelchair, we went out and fundraised to buy them the wheelchair. It was that simple.
SLIDE 3: Picture of helping people
As a child one thing my parents taught me from my Greek heritage was ‘Filotimo’.
Filotimo is a word that has no English translation, but It is defined as being hospitable and giving to others, without discrimination, and without expecting anything in return.
I learnt from growing up in a small community and from my parents that we can show Filotimo in everyday life.
I realised very early on that my passion in life was to help people.
But to do this as a career and to achieve my purpose I would have to further my studies to
get the skills to be able to pursue my passion.
So, When I finished high school I applied to university.
I didn’t get in.
In fact, I didn’t get accepted into anything that I had applied for.
It was up to ME to change this.
So, I wrote a letter to the university with the help of my teacher asking them to review the
Essentially, I was begging them to give me a chance.
While I waited with hope, I started a TAFE course through the volunteer ambulance service
to become a Paramedic.
3 months later a letter came from the university saying that a position had come up in the
nursing program and they would trial me for the first semester.
This was my chance
SLIDE 4: picture of red writing on essay
I was so excited to be accepted into Nursing because I would be gaining the skills needed to
This was my passion, and this was my purpose.
My excitement soon faded, when my essays started coming back to me covered in red pen.
I was just barely scraping through on a pass mark. One day my lecturer called me into her
office and she said:
“You will never make it as a Nurse, or a paramedic, you should quit and pick a
different Course, Nursing is just not for you.”
Why? Because I couldn’t write academic essays.
I was devastated. That was my dream.
I was being told that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t pursue my passion or fulfil my dream.
In that moment I knew that it was up to me to change this, I knew as I walked out of her office that day that I was not going to give up. It was up to me to create the change to prove to myself that I could do it.
I was NOT going to QUIT.
I persevered, and I kept handing in those essays. They kept coming back to me covered in
red pen but I managed to pass them, and before I knew it, I had completed all my subjects
My perseverance and persistence and ability to tackle problems head on had paid off.
I was able to graduate with a Batchelor of Nursing and a Diploma of Paramedic studies.
SLIDE 5: NURSE
Everyone has a moment.
A moment where they realise they are on the right path.
My moment came on a Friday night, one year after I graduated from Nursing.
I was driving into town and I saw an accident up ahead. It was a chaotic scene.
There were people panicking, bystanders not knowing what to do and there was a lack of
There was a fire truck there but no ambulance yet.
A woman had attempted to cross a busy road and had been hit by 2 cars.
You can imagine how horrific her injuries were.
I stopped at the scene and that is when my training kicked in, helping the fire crew,
doing all that we could to save this woman’s life.
I treated the patient with all my skills that I had learnt both as a nurse and a paramedic. I
remember one of the fire men thanking me repeatedly for stopping to help them. I was
holding a bag of fluids in my hands and I reached out to a bystander to pass it to them, so
they could hold it for me.
As I reached out I looked up.
It was her
It was that lecturer that had told me to quit and that I would never make it.
She had been driving one of the cars that hit the woman crossing the road.
Sometimes the very people that tell us that we can’t do something end up needing our
help, and they end up showing you that you are on the right path.
That was my moment.
SLIDE 6: mahatma ghandi quote
Creative change is more than embracing new ideas. It’s revisiting old ideas.
One of my favourite quotes is from Mahatma Ghandi.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
I did just that. I began to use my skills to volunteer. I volunteered in the ambulance service
And in the local community. I hoped one day to be able to take my skills overseas and
Once again I was told NO. I was not skilled enough, and I needed more
experience. The aid organisation said I couldn’t go and volunteer overseas.
Again, I was being told that I could not achieve my goal, that I could not fulfil my dream.
People also questioned how I, as one person, could make a difference if I went overseas to
Again, It was up to me to prove to myself that I could do this. It was up to me to create the
I persevered and persisted, I took up post graduate studies and went on to complete my Masters of Emergency Nursing and eventually, I made it overseas to volunteer as a Nurse.
It was while I was there I learnt some memorable lessons.
SLIDE 7: Pic from Philippines
It was November of 2013 when a large Typhoon struck the Philippines. This was going to
be my lesson in Empathy.
Tacloban was just devastated, I joined a medical group on a disaster response and headed
over to volunteer and help. On one of the days we were there, we set up a makeshift clinic
on the side of a basketball court surrounded by debris.
I was standing there taking in the sight of the devastation and the crowd needing
Medical treatment. The sight was overwhelming.
A local woman came and stood next to me, she looked exhausted and she was wearing clothes that had been donated and were way to big on her.
She sobbed as she told me how she had lost her child in the typhoon. It was
heartbreaking. She spoke of the Nightmares she was having and that she was scared that
the Typhoon would return.
There was nothing I could do for this woman medically at that
time, so, I sat and listened to her and I held her in my arms as she cried. I showed her
empathy and later she told me that sharing her story and having me listen to her had
helped her and that she would sleep much better now.
SLIDE 8: The lesson I learnt
In the Philippines I learnt that if you can listen to someone, console them while they
are grieving and show them empathy, you CAN create change, you CAN make a
SLIDE 9: Pic from Nepal
An earthquake rocked Nepal in 2015. Little did I know my lesson here would be
I volunteered with a medical team and we were situated up in a remote village in Ghorrka treating patients. We set up a basic clinic and treated hundreds of people every day. We heard stories of tragedy and loss and of courage.
The problems were so great and there were people that could not be saved.
One day an 8-year-old boy approached us at the clinic. He had hiked 4 hours down the mountain to get to us. His shoes were old and were falling apart and held together with tape. His face was dirty, and when he smiled he had 2 front teeth missing.
He was hungry, and he was asking for food and supplies to take back to his family. We fed the boy, and we were so impressed by how brave he was. We gave him rice and other supplies to take back to his family. He didn’t need medical assistance from us he just needed some supplies. I’ll never forget that big smile he gave me as he headed back up the mountain carrying what we had given him.
SLIDE 10: The lesson I learnt
In Nepal I learnt that If you can feed a hungry boy and give him supplies to help his family, and show him compassion, you CAN create change, you CAN make a difference.
SLIDE 11: picture of refugee crisis Greece/ border
The height of the refugee crisis in 2015 saw thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and
neighbouring countries, crossing the Aegean sea to the Greek islands.
Being Greek Australian I felt compelled to go and help when there were calls for Nurses to
It was here that I learnt the lesson of kindness.
When I wasn’t working in the clinic I was on the foreshore helping with boat arrivals.
Thousands of people arrived every day. It was winter cold, and people were soaking wet
from the boat ride across sea.
I helped a woman with her 2 children get changed into dry clothes, I
wrapped a blanket around them. The children were so cold their teeth were chattering as I
There was a look of shock on their faces as they had witnessed people drown on the
The woman had been so frightened but now there was a look of relief on her face because
they were safe.
She squeezed my hands and thanked me for being so kind.
Slide 12: The lesson I learnt
In Greece the lesson I learnt is that If you can wrap a blanket around someone
who is cold and show them kindness, you CAN create change, you CAN make a difference.
Slide 13: Iraq
It was in Iraq in 2017 that I learnt the lesson of hope.
There was a call for volunteer nurses in camps to assist those that were
escaping the conflict.
I responded to the call and I went to Iraq. I was treating patients in the clinic one day when
a mother with her child approached me.
They had a dullness in their eyes and looked so sad.
They were malnourished and traumatised.
They begged me for water to drink. I can’t describe the heartache I felt at that moment as I
rushed to get them some water.
The mother could not stop thanking me as they sat, quenching their thirst.
Through the interpreter she said that seeing a nurse had given her hope.
Slide 14: Lesson learnt
In Iraq the lesson I learnt is that if you can give water to someone who is thirsty and give them hope, you CAN create change, you CAN make a difference.
Slide 15: volunteer hugging
You can create change in your own life or in someone elses life.
When people say to me
‘Helen I would love to volunteer like you, but I don’t have your skills’
I think back to the lessons that I learnt and I say:
• If you can listen to someone who is grieving and show empathy, you can volunteer;
• If you can hand out food to someone who is hungry and show compassion, you can volunteer;
• If you can wrap a blanket around someone who is cold and show kindness, you can volunteer;
• If you can give water to someone who is thirsty and provide them with hope, you can volunteer;
Remember that facebook message from that teenage boy that wanted to kill himself?
All I did was show him Filotimo. I was a stranger that gave him a shiny smile and said some kind words and it saved his life. If you can give to others without expecting anything in return, you CAN volunteer.
Call to action
One person can’t change the world on their own, but together we can make a difference.
I challenge you all to create change.
I challenge you all to go out and volunteer, here at home, in your local community.
I challenge you to make a difference to one person.
People will tell you that you can’t do it, that it is too hard or that you aren’t skilled enough.
But it is up to you! Give it a go. You are the person that can create change. You are the person that CAN make a difference.
'I wish i had your skills then i would volunteer too'
Monday, 3 June 2019
Tedx Robina: creating change: Lessons from a humanitarian nurse
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