Blog Viewer

Q&A: lifelong humanitarian looks back on her ‘challenging and immensely personally rewarding’ career of 50+ years

Jean Aitcheson has made 37 humanitarian trips to 10 countries

By Jean Aitcheson
January 29, 2024
Used with the permission of Jean Aitcheson
Jean Aitcheson, on a recent mission to the Dominican Republic, helped distribute toothbrushes to children as part of an oral hygiene intiative.

Editor’s note: Jean Aitcheson is an exemplary nurse who has devoted her life to global humanitarian work and has received numerous awards for her devotion to helping those in need. Canadian Nurse thanks Lynda Younghusband for conducting this interview with Jean earlier this year.

You have made 37 humanitarian trips to 10 countries, mostly as team leader. What inspired you to become involved in this work?

When the opportunity arose in 1995, I was working full time and teaching nursing part time. I loved both. I wanted to share my knowledge and skills with a developing country and have an adventure into the unknown.

Could you talk briefly about a trip that stood out in your memory?

My first trip was an arduous 40 hours — starting in a small plane, five of us in a space for three without seatbelts, followed by a three-hour canoe trip sans life jackets. Our goal was to assess the health of the native people in a small village in the upper Amazon jungle. On arrival, we learned of an outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever.

Sleeping accommodations were in a tent on a concrete floor. The bathroom (latrine) was a hole dug in the ground to which we walked wearing rubber boots as protection from poisonous snakes. Reluctantly, on my first night, I pulled on those boots and with a flashlight made my way to the latrine. But I was glad I ventured outside the tent. I will never forget looking up; the Milky Way looked like a huge paintbrush had been dropped in white paint and swept across the sky. As I stood there taking in those stars, I heard a guitar strum, a drum, the jingle of beads made from nut shells and then voices singing as the whole village wakened and began their day-long hour of prayer.

People walked for hours from other villages to reach the open-air clinic. While they waited, the women groomed each other and the children by pulling the lice from each other’s hair and eating them! In three days, we treated low hemoglobin, urinary infections, musculoskeletal pain, malaria, intestinal worms and parasites. I could hear the crackle of worms in the abdomens of people who complained of abdominal pain.

Water came by truck, dumped into 40 gallon barrels along the roadside. It quickly became contaminated. The people existed on a diet they could harvest in the jungle — no greens, no citrus and very, very little protein.

Used with the permission of Jean Aitcheson
Jean Aitcheson says that she was proud to see the Canadian flag alongside the Dominican Republic’s flag outside the care centre, where treatment was being offered as part of a medical mission.

Could you give us a brief picture of the organization and work involved beforehand and then once you reach your destination?

Organizing a team is huge. First off is having a contact and a group or organization at the destination willing to do the following: search out about seven communities within a given area to have a one-day clinic and communicate their needs back to me; search out accommodation, transportation, tables and chairs and potable water and food; order requested medications; confirm ability to receive money transfers; and investigate local rules for an international team. Frequent communication is a must!

Here at home, meanwhile, we have to organize a registered charity to be a sponsor to accept donations for the costs of the trip and recruit the necessary team members for a medical team — physician(s), nurses, pharmacist, physiotherapist, optometrist — and many helpers to give children’s fluoride treatments, test and give reading glasses and lab assessments and help with crowd control.

It’s a team of 20 to 24. We have to set a budget, including the costs that each team member will pay, and arrange flights and transportation of people and hockey bags to and from the airport. And pack supplies! Make lists and pack what is needed: supplies for wound care, catheter care and small surgeries; a prenatal kit; assessment kits for each nurse and physician; diabetic assessment kits; lab assessment kits; IV treatments for emergencies; and PAP smear assessment kits if a lab is available. We have to order the items needed, like reading glasses, dental fluoride, antibiotics, vitamins and other medications that aren’t available.

All items have to be logged on a manifest for customs. Then supervise the packing of 50 to 70 hockey bags, each to be 49.5 pounds. Hold fundraising events to pay for needed items and team information meetings. Assign the hockey bags that each person will carry (only professional people would carry hockey bags with medications in them). Assign roommates.

Once in the country, have the team unpack all supplies so they are readily available and then pack up for clinic day 1. I would meet with the hosting group for information about clinic sites, sometimes doing site visits. Assign the people to work teams and tasks, changing when needed and also to give each team member a challenging and fulfilling experience. Have team meetings and reporting to destress and share experiences with all team members.

You worked as a nurse for 53 years, raised two sons, helped manage a large farm and have been an active member of several community organizations as well as all these humanitarian trips. Let us in on your secret to living such an active, productive life.

I am sad to say that there were times when I neglected my family. My in-laws lived across the road, and they helped out a lot. I have never had time to watch TV, and I have no time for social media. Everything is scheduled on a calendar. When I was working full time and involved with lots of nursing and work responsibilities, social events would just have to be missed. Work always came first. Thankfully, I am strong and healthy. In 40 years of full-time nursing, I only took 30 sick days.

The experiences that I have had in nursing, teaching, union work, and humanitarian mission work, in addition to raising a family and being involved with grandchildren and an active Rotarian, have in each and every case been challenging and immensely personally rewarding for a full and complete life.

I have had the fortune of accepting several awards during the course of my career. I share them with the Ottawa Civic Hospital class of ’64, with whom I received such a great nurses’ education; my family who have supported me; all of my patients and my students; the many team members I’ve collaborated with, including the numerous volunteers who work with me; the people who respond by giving supplies; and the people and organizations who send them where they are needed around the world. They have all helped mould me into the person I am, apparently worthy of being named to the Order of Canada.

Jean Aitcheson was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2002. She is also the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), the Stratford Woman of the Year in Health and Wellness (2014), the Rotary Service Above Self Award (2017), the Stratford Senior Citizen of the Year (2022), and the Province of Ontario Senior Achievement Award (2022).