Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.
Adeline Oliver, 67, nurse
“We finally came to a clearing, where we are now crossing into Syria. The field coordinator said to me, ‘run when I say run’.”
Volunteers for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, focus on delivering emergency medical aid in areas of crisis.
Adeline Oliver, a South African, has been an Operation Theater nurse for the last 35 years.
She was 60 years old when she joined MSF. She had retired from an active nursing job, and didn’t know what she was going to do with her life.
Little did she know that in just two weeks, she would be leaving the cosy comfort of her Johannesburg home and be on a flight to war-torn Afghanistan, where she would be for six months on her first assignment with MSF.
She recalls the country as very poor and the people exploited. Their homes had been bombed, they were living in shelters or the streets and sold every little thing they had.
She witnessed terrible fatalities during her stay there. Oliver managed to save some of the lives with her expertise.
Syria was her second assignment, when the civil war had just begun.
Her long journey to reach the MSF field hospital in Syria’s Idlib government took her on a midnight hike through forests and past the ruins of Aleppo. When she finally reached her destination it was just before sunrise. After two hours of sleep she joined the rest of the team to start working in the hospital MSF had set up inside a cave.
“In the cave were a fully-equipped operating room, and a fully-equipped emergency room. It’s a huge cave. Once it was closed it was just another hill”.
From this unusual location where Adeline and her team provided life-saving medical care for several months to people who needed it most – regardless of their political affiliation or social status.
Monica Genya, 43, logistician
“The first thing I heard was machine gunfire…”
Monica Genya has worked with MSF for 24 years around the world as a logistician. Straight after college, she joined the organization and wanted to make a difference.
“My job is to make sure the camps are working smoothly for our medical personnel. It means getting all the supplies necessary to put up out-patient departments so doctors can come in and see patients and dispense medication,” she explains.
“When I landed in Kismayo for the first time, the first thing I heard was machine gunfire…tadadadadada, tadadada. It was constant and I was scared witless,” she recalls.
She also had to get used to not sitting up straight at breakfast on the rooftop dining areas because she was afraid she would get hit by stray bullets.
Soon, Genya set up tents and medical equipment to save lives, forgetting her life could be in danger too.
“There was a time when the hospital was besieged in Kismayo by invading forces. We were forced to go into a bunker and lock ourselves in and hide. We could hear the invaders going from room to room asking where the doctors were. Eventually they gave up and walked out. At that point, you realize that things could be really bad if you were found. That was a profoundly scary moment,” she says.
But that was nothing compared to Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis in 2014.
“If it’s a man with a gun, you might be able to plead, reason or negotiate. Probably not, but in your head you are thinking this is a person like me. But there is no negotiating with Ebola,” she says.
This job called for a great amount of experience, and quick action.
Nthabiseng Mogale, 25, paramedic
“Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person.”
Nthabiseng Mogale qualified as a professional medic in 2014 in Johannesburg. She has since saved countless lives working out of an emergency room on wheels.
But even today, she admits to being nervous every time she gets a call out. “You don’t know what kind of an accident you are going to find. You get to an accident and someone has a broken leg, or a scratch, some of them are horrible and traumatic. Emotionally, you get attached even though you don’t know the person. This job is difficult, but it’s also lovely because you get to save lives.”
She recalls one morning when she received a call about a seven-year-old, who was involved in an accident and suffered brain injury. The child had been sleeping since the night before, and didn’t wake up the following morning.
“Calls about children are more emotional than any others. That little, tiny body lying there, dead, not breathing, not responding, is not nice, it’s never nice actually,” says Mogale, who is a young mother herself.
The gratitude from her patients is what keeps Mogale going.
“Just a thank you is more than enough,” she says.
These are everyday heroes, fearless and loyal to the call of duty.