Perhaps having been born the fifth child in a family of six children where their mother “ran the house along military lines” helped Andrew Cameron develop a determined self-sufficiency, strength of spirit, and a good measure of robust survival skills. All of this has held him in good stead throughout his adventurous life and intrepid nursing career. This career is the subject of Cameron’s newly published autobiography, A Nurse on the Edge of the Desert – From Birdsville to Kandahar: the art of extreme nursing. Cameron leads us to the many places and events which populate his nursing journey, culminating in his being awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal, a prestigious honour which very few nurses ever receive.
Cameron writes briefly of growing up in 1960s and ‘70s Napier (New Zealand), a time of relative childhood freedom. He worked hard at schooling, then drifted through many minor jobs until, after visiting a workmate in hospital, he thought he would have a go at nursing. To this end, he ultimately found himself enrolled to do his training at the Hutt Hospital, the only male nursing student in a class of 43! To join an even smaller minority, Cameron later did his midwifery training, adding another valuable set of skills and knowledge to his clinical tool box. Indeed, education is a major theme in this life story as Cameron, never one to rest on his laurels, continues to gain various qualifications such as an Advanced Diploma of Nursing and a Master of Tropical Health degree; always working hard to keep his practice as current and relevant as possible and keep himself encouraged and refreshed.
It does not take long for the reader to realise that Cameron is not one to let the dust settle under his feet. Quite early on in his career he moved to Australia and it is here, primarily, in the outback towns and out-of-the way places, that Cameron found his real passion for nursing and for the people that inhabit some of the most remote and rural areas of that vast country. One of these places is Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpenteria, where Cameron spent seven years as the Director of Nursing of Mornington Island hospital. He gives accounts, often sad and shocking, of the suicides, neglect and general dysfunction of an Aboriginal society where abuse of alcohol has wreaked havoc and Health Department officials have turned a blind eye (“out of sight, out of mind”). Governmental neglect means lack of funding for necessary medical resources, and Cameron challenges the authorities by refusing to meet with them during an official visit from the mainland. However, Cameron points out that it was not all ‘doom and gloom’ on the island, and he came to know many dignified and proud people of the Lardil and Kaiadilt heritage.
The book’s narrative structure is framed as an intertwining of two alternating stories. The first is written as diary-like contemporaneous snippets of the lead-up to the Birdsville races (an annual highlight for the small outback town where Cameron spends several years). The other story is a general ongoing tale of Cameron’s life and work. This device works well, and the tension builds as a massive number of people roll in to Birdsville in their camper vans, caravans and mobile homes to attend the races and generally have a good time. Heavy rain is forecast however and despite the fact that the number of visitors is down on previous years, a ‘cavalry’ of extra helpers (Flying Doctor, police) have arrived as back-up in anticipation of an equally massive influx in medical problems – as the punters party hundreds of miles from home.
Cameron writes of how he meets and marries a young German doctor with whom he has two daughters, cared for by Cameron at home in their early years as his wife completes her medical training. Although he loves being with them in Germany, he is constantly pulled back to nursing and the latter part of the book relates his stints as a Red Cross nurse in war zones such as Kahandar and an African Ebola Treatment centre. The book epilogue finds Cameron in Tajikistan in early 2017. He ends his story by posing the question, both to the reader and undoubtedly to himself: “who knows where I will be a week, a month, a year from now”? Cameron’s drive to nurse people in need in often the most extreme and challenging environments is an inspiration to all nurses and humanity alike.
Lorraine Ritchie is a registered nurse who is currently working as a professional nursing adviser in the Southern region for the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO). She has recently graduated with a PhD on meaning and medication for older people.
A Nurse on the Edge of the Desert is published by Massey University Press. Details here.