International award celebrates outstanding Red Cross nurse

11 February 2022

An Australian woman who spent almost two decades working with Red Cross in conflict zones around the world has been honoured with one of nursing’s highest international accolades.

The prestigious 2021 Florence Nightingale Award has been awarded posthumously to former Queensland woman Bernadette (Detta) Gleeson, and will be presented to members of Ms Gleeson’s family by the Governor-General of Australia, David Hurley, at a ceremony at Government House in Canberra (10.20am Friday 11 February).

“The Florence Nightingale Award recognises Ms Gleeson’s courage and remarkable service. She put others before self and was a credit to her profession, Red Cross and Australia,” the Governor-General and Patron of Australian Red Cross said.

Australian Red Cross International Humanitarian Program head Adrian Prouse said the award was the highest international distinction recognising outstanding contributions to the nursing profession.

“Detta was an incredible woman. She was a true humanitarian of exceptional courage and compassion who remains deeply missed,” he said.

She worked with Red Cross in Afghanistan, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Nigeria and Lebanon over almost two decades.

“Detta lost her life to leukemia in 2017 and, right up to her diagnosis, she devoted her time, her heart and her mind to caring for people affected by armed conflicts around the world,” Mr Prouse said.

He described Ms Gleeson as a champion of humanity who represented the very essence of the work and ethos of Red Cross.

“Detta worked in some of the most insecure environments in the world often at times when people were experiencing their greatest need.

“With this recognition, Detta joins a very select group of Australians – which is wholeheartedly appropriate given all she contributed to the work of Red Cross and the nursing profession.”

Detta’s brother, Pat Gleeson, said it was an honour to accept the award on behalf of his family.

“Detta undertook her Red Cross challenge as her next life adventure and, from the recounts between missions, the challenges were extraordinary – from nursing hippo bites to putting smiles on kids’ faces with a simple balloon, to hilarious boat races in the desert,” he said.

“She also shared the more serious situations too: small children choosing second-hand artificial limbs after being forced to test for land mines; mothers forced to give up their children to ‘fight for the cause’; young girls and women seriously mistreated in all the countries she visited; and thousands of people dying in the Pakistan floods.

“Detta found it easier for us if she kept the recounts light hearted.  The world she had been a part of was so far removed from our privileged and ideal Australia,” Mr Gleeson said

Ms Gleeson attended school in Crow’s Nest and Toowoomba. She trained in nursing at Toowoomba Hospital and in midwifery at Calvery Hospital in Hobart, and worked in the United Kingdom, Queensland and Melbourne before joining Red Cross.

Australian Red Cross CEO Kim Pfitzner said Ms Gleeson had used her skills in nursing, leadership and coordination to improve the lives of patients, colleagues and communities.

“She was known for her compassionate and warm approach and recognised as a leader and mentor, inspiring people in the health field and more broadly across Red Cross and Red Crescent movement,” he said.

A bequest from Ms Gleeson’s estate to the Afghan Australian Development Organisation, which has helped deliver science training to 350 teachers, more than half of them women, has ensured she has continued her humanitarian impact even after her death.

Donations to the Red Cross Afghanistan Crisis Appeal can be made here.

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