Nurse works to better lives amid bloody violence in South Sudan (March 8, 2013)

Written by Valerie Fortney

Published by Calgary Herald on Friday, March 8, 2013

His name was Michael and he was more than a patient to Karen Daniels. “He was my friend,” says the 41-year-old registered nurse of the 20-something young man, just one of thousands of victims of the Sudanese civil war. “They put an AK-47 through the car window and shot him. I was sitting right beside him.”

Spending months in a war-torn, poverty-stricken country is an experience most Canadians would think twice about before singing up for. For Daniels, a native of Cranbrook, B.C., spending her days in 40C heat without the benefits of running water or electricity, and her nights in a tent often swarmed by bugs, is a small price to pay for helping to save the lives of those caught in that country’s ongoing strife.

Seeing a beloved friend brutally murdered in 2005, though, put her over the  edge. “At that moment, I just wanted to go home,” says Daniels, who does her work through Samaritan’s Purse Canada; this year, she is marking 10 years with the Christian relief and development organization.

She did go home, spending six weeks re-connecting with her dad, Allan, a retired physician and her mom, Mary, a retired nurse, along with her two siblings and many friends in Western Canada. Then she got back on a plane and resumed her mission to aid some of the most desperate people in the world. “It broke my heart,” she says of the experience of having a front-row seat to the violent chaos of war. “It took a lot of time and forgiveness for me to move forward.”

Nearly eight years after that life-altering tragedy, Daniels is back home, the avid skier enjoying the powder of the Rocky Mountains. But not for long: the country that time and again broke her heart has also captured it.

On Wednesday afternoon, she can be found at the Samaritan's Purse office in northeast Calgary, catching up with colleagues and talking to media types like me about why she has chosen such a challenging life and career.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be spending the next decade of my life sleeping in a tent with no running water or plumbing, I wouldn’t have believed it,” the youthful Daniels says with a laugh. “It just kind of happened.”

When prodded, though, she admits to long ago becoming hooked on every aspect of life there. “I love my work, it’s so rewarding; it just provides a huge amount of personal fulfilment,” she says. “I love the country and its people — I  was there during war, I saw the peace agreement signed, I got to be there for the celebration of independence.”

Still, Daniels’ work as a nurse in remote bush hospitals is still a highly dangerous one. Eight years after the peace agreement of 2005 and South Sudan’s declaration of independence from Sudan in 2011, certain disputes continue between the two countries; South Sudan also remains at war with several armed groups in its country and close to a quarter-million people are still displaced on both sides of the border.

“I’ve lived through bombings, fire — about the only thing I haven’t experienced is a flood,” she says of the past few years in which she has spent most of her time working at two refugee camps, Yida in South Sudan and Maban in  the country’s Upper Nile area. “The tension is very real. We are not the targets of the violence, but we can get in the way.”

Still, the work that she and her colleagues — fellow international health-care professionals and South Sudanese workers — are doing is what keeps her coming back. “Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should have had kids of my own,” she says. Then, remembering all the children whose lives have been transformed from her and others’ work on a cleft palate program, she adds: “But I have kids all over South Sudan, who I carry in my heart.”

Before she heads back to South Sudan in two weeks, Daniels plans to get in some skiing at Whistler and visit with friends and family on the West Coast. “Sometimes I look around and ask, ‘Did I make a difference?’” she says of the country where beloved friends can be brutally murdered in front of her, merely for being from the wrong tribe.

Then she remembers another young man, one whose life she helped save after he was shot. “We had a bench for an operating table, a flashlight and I had to give him the anesthetic,” she says of the unorthodox duties she’s often called upon to perform in the midst of a medical crisis. “Afterwards, I said to him, ‘you’re  a miracle — there’s no way you should be alive.’

“Every day is different,” she says of her ongoing commitment to the people of  South Sudan. “It’s unpredictable, it’s addictive and, sometimes, you get to see lives changed for the better, in very tangible ways.”