A “Point of Light” in Brazil’s Jungle; a Nurse’s Story

A “Point of Light” in Brazil’s Jungle; a Nurse’s Story

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Doctors Without Borders not only won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, but Kathleen Mahoney, one of its volunteers, a graduate nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania, was recently honored by the Points of Light Foundation for her work in Boa Vista, Brazil and the Javari region dealing with disease epidemics and other health issues.

Kathleen, a 28-year-old registered nurse, spent nearly three years in the Amazon traveling from house to house by canoe through waters rife with snakes, alligators and pirhanas. At night, she slept in a hammock that she would hang up in the local school or health post, eating a diet of cassava root, beans and local grains.

“It was very difficult for me to imagine that this would be my daily routine,” says Kathy, “but now I can’t imagine not doing it. It has been an incredible learning experience.”

She trained local health promoters to diagnose malaria and to recognize and treat other diseases that plague their communities.

She would travel in a small plane to the mountains, and then hike on foot or take a canoe or horse to remote villages, carrying boxes of medicine and equipment.

Once she arrived in a village, Mahoney teamed up with local health workers. She taught them about modern techniques and in turn learned about native medicine, as they attended to patients together .

Doctors Without Borders launched the project in Brazil in 1993, to control a malaria epidemic brought on by mining in the area. The region, rich in gold, had attracted prospectors as well as their diseases, to which the indigenous populations had no resistance.

As part of a Doctors Without Borders team, Mahoney provided microscopes to nearly 40 villages and launched a training program for diagnosing and treating malaria. There is now at least one trained microscopist in each village, and since the project began, the number of annual cases of malaria in the area has been cut by almost half.

Both President Bill Clinton and former President George Bush are sending a congratulatory letter to Kathy as part of the award. The Points of Light Foundation is a nonprofit organization established to engage more people more effectively in volunteer community service.