Nurse to share service abroad stories

Kim Thompson

Mary Lightfine helps in an ambulance rescue in Chiapas, Mexico. Lightfine has volunteered as a nurse overseas for more than 10 years.

Credit: Beth Rankin

Her convoy was ambushed and fired at in Somalia, and she was arrested in Sudan for taking photographs. After being released, she was forced from a vehicle at gunpoint the same day. Yet she keeps going back.

Mary Lightfine has volunteered as a nurse since 1992 with International Medical Corps and Doctors Without Borders, two international humanitarian organizations. She is speaking on campus tonight about her experiences.

“I paint a human face on the people behind the news,” Lightfine said. “In every lecture, the students laugh, and I’ve seen a tear or two.”

Ann Gosky, associate director of the Office of Campus Life, the group responsible for bringing Lightfine to campus, said Lightfine can help put the international issues publicized by the media into perspective.

“Very often, we can pick up a newspaper and read about what’s happening in Sudan or what’s happened in Bosnia, and we just never hear or have an opportunity to talk to someone who’s been there,” Gosky said.

Although the situations she’s been in seem dangerous, Lightfine said terrible events happen even to people who are careful, and the rewards of her service are greater and inspire her to continue.

“Accidents happen, so I’m not going to isolate myself in a house just because accidents happen,” Lightfine said. “So my philosophy is to live like I could die tomorrow, but don’t do anything I’d regret in case I don’t die tomorrow.”

Her motivation to become a nurse likely stemmed from her father’s generous nature, Lightfine said.

“My dad was a humanitarian. He was always giving things away. Sometimes, he’d come home without his car,” Lightfine said.

Lightfine said she was first attracted to volunteer overseas because when she worked in emergency rooms in the United States, people from foreign countries seemed more caring.

She said a young Mexican boy on whom she worked in an emergency room in Los Angeles left significant impact on her. His mother couldn’t speak English, and his family was destitute. But when he returned to the hospital, he brought her a gift. Lightfine said she didn’t see this kind of caring from American patients.

Curiosity was another reason Lightfine said she wanted to work internationally.

“As a kid, I saw Tarzan in the jungles, and I wanted to know what the people were really like in Africa,” Lightfine said. “So I think it was my dad, Tarzan and that little Mexican boy that sent me on my way.”

While volunteering in Somalia with the International Medical Corps in 1992, Lightfine came in contact with Doctors Without Borders. She wanted to work with the group when her contract ended with International Medical Corps, but she couldn’t do so until she learned to speak French.

So Lightfine wandered the streets of Paris until she found a school that would teach her. She studied the language for four weeks and returned to the Paris office of Doctors Without Borders to demonstrate her newly acquired French language skills. Shortly after, she made her first trip with the organization to Sri Lanka.

Since 1981, she’s visited more than 65 countries including Macedonia, Afghanistan, Kenya and Nicaragua, according to her Web site.

Besides sharing her experiences, Lightfine said she brings apparel from the countries she’s visited and demonstrates how to make a sarong for $1.50. She also encourages people to use whatever talents they have to help.

“The main message is that one person can make a difference, and that person doesn’t have to be a nurse or a doctor,” Lightfine said. “I bring this one tiny thing that changed the lives of thousands of people. I know students are inventors, and they can be inspired by this.”

Lightfine is speaking at 7 p.m. tonight in room 306 of the Student Center.

Contact medicine reporter Kim Thompson at [email protected].