Theresa Tierney with some of the children in her care.

“Her eyes would sometimes light up when she saw me, that’s when she had the strength to be aware… they told me when she passed.”

Theresa Tierney Bugler shares her experiences as a student nurse volunteering in South Africa with children and mothers suffering from Aids. Nicholas Jackman reports.

A new world opens up for a 19 year-old Irish girl. Having landed in Johannesburg, the aid vehicle treks the bumpy road for hours on end, further and further north. The cityscape opening up to a scorched earth, sights of a poverty stricken wilderness never before known to her. In her Personal CD player, a U2 album spins, ‘Where the Streets have no name,’ Bono blares. “I looked out into the desert,” said Theresa, “The song played in my ears. I looked out at the burnt ground, the lack of vegetation, and I was looking at just that. That is the thought that stuck with me. This was where the streets did have no name, my first impression of Africa.”

Theresa Tierney was far away from home, and the man she loved. His ongoing stint in the Irish navy saw them at two different sides of the planet, he in Russia, her working now as a volunteer nurse continents away. They married eight years later, Theresa Tierney Bugler is now working the job of her dreams, working with young people harboring mental health issues back in Ireland, but her time on the dark continent, she credits as one of the main factors of this success, the small line in her CV always drawing the attention of the interviewer, begging questions, and giving her an edge.

“Since I was a small child I always wanted to go and work in Africa.”

Here she speaks the story of that time her and her then boyfriend were apart: “It was the summer of 2003, since I was a small child I always wanted to go and work in Africa. There had been Live Aid, the terrible famine in Ethiopia, it all stuck in my mind. There may have been food on my plate that I didn’t want, and I would ask Mum to send it to Africa.” The years passed and then came her chance. “I was in second year studying nursing in Dundalk, African Aid made a call out to students in the College to join their ranks to complete volunteer work. It was my first opportunity to get out there, but it was the perfect one. I hadn’t a clue if I would get it, I just thought; go for it.”

Ten interviewed, it came down to four, and from them she was the only one in the nursing field to make the journey. An accountant, a media student, they would join her. But not before a training weekend in the home of ‘The Irish Country Women’s Association,’ here they would be taught what to expect, a means to somehow acclimatize them to what they would see, how they would have to deal with a people suffering from the ravages of AIDS. Not only that, but doing so in a time, and a place where there was no access       to resources that might reduce the pain, no anti-viral drugs or other treatment methods that could slow down, or make easier the journey to death.

“Health care should be available to everybody; it should not matter whether you were born into wealth or into poverty.”

The WHO guided push to provide such medications to those suffering from AIDS in poor countries since 2003 has seen a change to this for many, legislation now allowing the generic drugs to be imported cheaply, a move which delighted Theresa when news broke. “I am a fervent believer that health care should be available to everyone, it should not matter whether you were born into

wealth or into poverty.”

The cost of Theresa’s venture to work in Africa was borne by the communities of Dundalk, and her home town. She was an Irish Champion long distance runner. It gave her a little boost as she raced around her local community collecting sponsorship lines.

Her role was one of care giving, mainly volunteering in the crèche of the London mission. It is near a big town called Tzaneen in the Limpopo area.  She would work in the Mother and Baby Care Centre at Ofcolaco. In these places, she would get to put into practice the theory afforded to her at Nursing College, albeit with only a fraction of the resources she had come to expect. Now working in an Irish health care service where resources are being cut to the bone, she reflects that perhaps she is adjusting better than anyone, having seen demonstrated, how so much can be done with so little.

“It was an Irish mission, I couldn’t speak higher of the priests and nuns who carried out caring duties there on their mission. The purchase of jeeps had made it possible for people in the more rural areas who had absolutely no healthcare access, to access the care centers, and they were always busy bringing people to and fro.” Money was being pumped in from all over the world, but in particular from Ireland into the mission, and it was being pumped out again affording the patients everything that was possible to giving the children and the adults a higher quality of life. To be honest if I was dying in the morning I would be delighted to have that level of care devoted to me.”

“In spite of our surroundings there was a positive mood.”

“It was their winter, but I still found it unbearably hot. All of the volunteers who went, made it through the volunteering venture without giving up, and in spite of our surroundings there was a positive mood. The volunteers were pottering around always working with the patients. Food was constantly on the go. The nuns and volunteers were teaching the children, and looking after them. The radio belted out pop music, the kids loved to dance and sing, and those that were well enough would jump at the chance when asked to dance, there was always activity, and there was a fantastic energy.”

“It was a very homely place, a beautiful centre. The children’s dorm had lovely cots, their own drawings and paintings dotted the walls, the kids had so many donated toys to play with. In the evenings we would get to meet the locals who would call to the priests house, and sit around the fire chatting. Our mentor was an utterly fantastic woman. She was the essence of a strong woman, friendly, warm, a good listener with an open mind.  The day the volunteers were to leave the locals threw a party for us, and we too shared in the local dancing, I’m no expert though.”

It was of course not all about fun. Poignantly many of the faces which come back to her frequently as her favourite people from the experience are no longer living. “It is tough knowing that they are going to die. It is a hard thing to say, those words, ‘just get on with it and give them the best quality of life you can in the time that is remaining for them,’ if it starts to get to you, then you might as well just give up.”

“Of course you are sad, you try to get the balance right, you try to be empathetic, sympathetic even to their woes, but that doesn’t quite cover it. Whatever happens you cannot let them know that you are sad, that would just affect them in a negative way, bring them down.” Out of the many faces from Africa that comes back into Theresa’s mind is that of a; “Lovely little young girl, her mother was long since gone, and her father worked in a faraway city. She was all on her own. Her eyes would sometimes light up when she saw me, that’s when she had the strength to be aware… they told me when she passed.”

“In some ways it was perhaps wrong for me to do the volunteer work in that area at just 19, but in other ways there was just so much right with it.” 

Theresa gained further experience working as a care assistant back in Dublin after her volunteer experience. There she was working with people who had mainly contracted the illness through sharing needles. Their state of physical well-being, in spite of the illness, and their addiction, she determines was much better than that of those she was treating in South Africa. That is according to Theresa because of the lack of resources and equipment for their treatment. “I found that the experience in Africa left me better equipped,” she declared. “There was less of a shock factor for anything. I could say that in some ways it was perhaps wrong for me to do the volunteer work in that area at just 19, but in other ways there was just so much right with it.”

She took back the stories of her summer to her classmates, and they were thrilled to hear. Her best friend who was also a student nurse went out the following year, and took much personal and professional growth from the experience. “Many others said that they would like to do that sometime, whether they ever did or not I do not know.”

“I came back, and it was the height of the Celtic Tiger, all that I could see around me was needless wastage, the building of things that would never be needed. Wastage, corruption and lack of resources aside though, the giving of your time and your nursing skills towards bettering the last days of peoples’ lives goes beyond money. It is as important perhaps as the drugs and treatments that go into keeping people healthy. I think in many ways to be there for somebody, to treat them with respect, to give their last days dignity, that is easy to bear I feel.  I’ll return to Africa someday, but for now I have the experience gained in Africa to thank for much of the abilities I possess, and perhaps the edge on my CV to attain the job I adore working today.”