April 7, 2021

UCalgary Nursing alum is doing her part to build a fairer, healthier world for everyone

In a UN encampment in South Sudan, Masira Baloch, BN’10, works with Médecins Sans Frontières covering the ER, COVID, internal medicine and TB units
Masira Baloch BN'10 walking outside the MSF compound.
Masira Baloch walks outside the MSF compound during a time when it was safe to leave.

There is no doubt that the world is still an unequal one. While you don’t have to look much farther than the effect of COVID-19 in different areas of the globe, it has been a 70-year goal of the World Health Organization to focus each April 7 on an issue of health inequity.

It hasn’t been remotely close to 70 years for emergency room nurse Masira Baloch, BN’10, but even before her years as a nursing student at UCalgary, she had been hearing stories of her grandparents’ humanitarian work in India. And, after an experience working in a luxurious hospital in Abu Dhabi, she wondered how the poorest areas of the world managed health care. That experience pushed her to apply for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a medical movement with 40,000 staff across more than 70 countries.

“A nursing degree opens up a lot of opportunities,” says Baloch, who has been working with MSF in the South Sudan in a UN encampment since November 2020.

You can make a difference anywhere you choose to practice, whether it is a local hospital/clinic or a remote hospital in Africa.

Baloch manages more than 70 nurses as a nurse activity manager in the 164-bed facility where she acts as both a charge nurse and an educator to four units: ER, COVID, internal medicine and TB.

“Shortly after I got here, there was a COVID outbreak and I was involved in setting up a COVID unit which consisted of two large tents and one tukul (mud hut) for a total of 29 beds,” explains Baloch, who is unsure if the region will receive any vaccine in 2021. “COVID spread like a wildfire here since the living conditions in the camp are quite poor with 10 to 15 people living under one tukul.”

Masira Baloch with MSF coworkers

Masira, left, with expat co-workers Japanese anesthesiologist Kengo, who was leaving that day, and internal medicine doctor Caro from the Netherlands.

Baloch was initially interviewed in 2019 and, after learning French (a MSF requirement), she was accepted for her South Sudan assignment in early 2020. At that time, the health issues in South Sudan were mostly HIV, TB and malaria. 

“HIV and TB are endemic here,” says Baloch. “Lots of these cases here, but also on the rise is Hepatitis E and cholera. When these people get COVID, it’s almost impossible to save them.”

Likely the most intense personal experience she had to face was witnessing the death of a six-month-old baby and later seeing the 20-year-old mother collapse on the floor. “I will never forget the mother’s scream in the ER as I had just walked through the doors that early morning. The baby girl was lying on the bed like a beautiful doll.“

Baloch does not get much respite in her downtime either. There are 29 expats in the compound where she lives in a tent with only a bed and a fan.

The 29-bed COVID unit.

The COVID unit where Baloch works consists of two large tents and one tukul (mud hut) with a total of 29 beds.

“It has been quite difficult,” she admits about the very basic living conditions. “Pit latrines, cold showers with harsh water since the filter system isn’t the best; loss of electricity and water multiple times a day. Lots of snakes, scorpions and other insects. Plus, there is high security around since we are in a UN camp; we can’t leave the compound so it is hospital to tent and back to hospital.”

Despite this, Baloch feels she is helping to make a difference and her experience has been positive overall. Changes normally take time to happen in this camp; my role is education and leadership. I work with 99-per-cent male nurses who are very eager to learn and improve. And, since I have been here, the flow of patients in the ER and my other units has improved quite a lot. Patients are getting referred to the right specialties which was not the case before.

“I have learned how community involvement, trust and capacity building between stakeholders and beneficiaries directly affect outcomes,” she continues.

“I was fortunate to witness the large picture of an operation as well as the small steps that are necessary to run any project. I feel very proud: nursing is one of the best professions out there. I will always be a proud nurse until my last day.” 

Baloch will return to Calgary next month and plans to rejoin the “amazing” ER team at the Peter Lougheed Centre.