Claire Bertschinger

Claire Bertschinger

Operation Drake 1978

Emergency relief nurse Dame Claire Bertschinger tells us about her first foray into nursing abroad as part of Operation Drake, a landmark Expedition that paved the way for Operation Raleigh and, later, Raleigh International.

Dame Claire Bertschinger is a highly respected nurse and advocate for health in developing countries. Her work with the International Committee of the Red Cross has taken her to some of the world’s most troubled disaster zones, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia. As a relief nurse during the Ethiopia famine in 1985, an interview Claire gave to BBC journalist Michael Buerk inspired Bob Geldof to launch Live Aid. The biggest emergency appeal the UK had then seen, it is estimated to have raised £150 million.

In recognition of her work around the world, Claire has been awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Bish Medal by the Scientific Exploration Society and a number of honorary doctorates. Today, Claire is Course Director for the Diploma in Tropical Nursing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she trains nurses to work in resource poor areas.

In the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake

Claire’s first posting abroad as a young nurse was as part of Operation Drake, a two-year round-the-world sailing Expedition following the route taken by Sir Francis Drake, and led by Lieutenant Colonel John Blashford-Snell. The venture, which gave more than 400 young people the chance to develop practical and leadership skills while taking part in scientific, environmental and community projects, paved the way for what would later become Raleigh International.

“You’re there to help people help themselves. Rather than just go as an angel of mercy and do the dressings and treat people, you try to leave behind something they can use themselves.”

Claire joined the trip as team medic, travelling to Panama, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Her job was to set up a mobile clinic to deal with any injuries or illness that befell the group. “Every day was exciting, fun and interesting – and a challenge,” she says. “Before I left home I can remember talking to the medical officer of the Expedition and thinking about what I would need to take. In my head I ran through scenarios, things like: ‘if there’s a plane crash, if someone gets appendicitis, if someone gets bitten by a snake, what am I going to do?’ And in certain scenarios I had very limited resources, but that was life.”

Highs and lows

One of the things that stands out for Claire is the sense of teamwork that came so naturally on the Expedition. “We just all mucked in,” she says. “It was all about everyone helping out.”

This led to Claire spending several hair-raising months building a raised walkway high in the rainforest canopy. On one particularly terrifying occasion, she remembers losing her rope and being stranded on a slippery branch, 120 feet up, as a snake approached along a nearby bough. “It was awful,” she says. “I thought: ‘this is it’. I was on such a flimsy branch that I could have just toppled off at any moment.” Eventually, Claire was helped safely down, but within hours she was on another rope, back up in the canopy, getting on with the work.

“If I had been given a list of things I’d be doing before I went on the Expedition, I might have gulped,” she says. “And when I look back I’m surprised at what I’ve done, but I just got on and did what I could do.”

Helping people help themselves

Another part of Claire’s role was to teach local populations about health and hygiene, much as Raleigh volunteers do today. She remembers training a young girl in Panama in the basics of home nursing, and leaving her with a first aid kit and an instruction manual. But since she couldn’t read, Claire had to provide her with pictures illustrating what each item was and how it should be used. “I’ve done that all over the world,” she says. “You realise that you’re there to help people help themselves. Rather than just go as an angel of mercy and do the dressings and treat people, you try to leave behind something they can use themselves.”

“I encourage many of my postgraduate nurses to go on Raleigh as a medic… And I have had 100% feedback that it was the best thing I could have ever advised them to do.”

Claire says the biggest challenge she encountered was falling sick herself. On the first leg of the Expedition, she caught leptospirosis while deep in the Panamanian rainforest and had to be carried out of the jungle on a stretcher, delirious with fever. “I thought: ‘That’s not on, I can’t fall sick – I’m a tough bird!’” She says. “I never thought that would happen. It’s just not in my persona to be ill. I can still remember being on the ship The Eye of the Wind when I was in Indonesia, in Sulawesi, and having a temperature of 38 degrees and still being on watch, trying not to tell anyone that I was ill.”

Living as a global citizen

Above all, Claire’s experiences have made her feel like a global citizen, with a responsibility to care for and support others, no matter where they live. But she worries that in the modern world this message can easily get lost, especially for young people. “Technology has made the world smaller and made us all neighbours,” she explains. “But it can’t do the really important thing of giving us back the village mentality around caring for each other.”

What can help achieve this, Claire believes, is programmes like Raleigh. “Travelling and working with Raleigh will help you realise that actually these people in another culture and another part of the world are our neighbours,” she says. “Young people are our future leaders, so they need to learn from the beginning how things are run – not just in their own little town or village but in the wider world. And to do it in a secure environment like Raleigh, among so many different people and communities and cultures, is one of the best ways.

“I encourage many of my postgraduate nurses to go on Raleigh as a medic, especially if they want to work in resource-poor areas of the world like Africa or India or South America. And I have had 100% feedback that it was the best thing I could have ever advised them to do. Raleigh has a wonderful ambience, a joie de vivre, a common aim, so you might be in challenging situations, but it’s actually quite supportive and you learn fast whether you would be capable of working in resource poor situations or not.”

An optimistic message

If there’s one message Claire feels today’s young people should carry with them, it’s about seeing themselves as part of a global community and thinking that they really can change the world. “I think we all have to dare to believe that we can stand up and make a difference,” she says. “And go for our dreams.”

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