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Melbourne’s M*A*S*H nurse on the frontline

The scene is like a real-life version of M*A*S*H. In a makeshift medical facility in South Sudan, Kieren Box and other aid workers are called to fly to a wedding that has turned into a gunfight.
Many patients brought in to the operation theatre are children caught up in gun violence.

By the time they reach the remote village the shootout has spilt to the airstrip where they were planning to land.

With no way of safely reaching the wedding guests they divert their helicopter, hoping the gunfire will die down.

But the hail of bullets continues and they’re eventually forced to abandon the rescue mission, leaving the wounded with little prospect of making it to hospital.

Mr Box, who recently returned home to Australia, said it was a sad reality of life in a country ravaged by bloodshed.

The 41-year-old operating theatre nurse has become a specialist at patching up patients in conflict zones.

At a week’s notice, he can be sent to a new war-torn region.

He has been based for years as a clinical manager at Epping’s Northern Hospital but spends months at a time away from Australia through his work with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Kieren Box has been working in a bush hospital in Ganyiel, South Sudan.

Last year he arrived in northern Nigeria two months after two nurses and a driver from Red Cross were abducted. All three were later killed by militants.

His most recent job was a seven-month stint in South Sudan, flying between three mobile medical units helping the country’s fledgling healthcare sector cope with the alarming rate of gun violence.

"The overwhelming majority of patients were young men with gunshot wounds. As a result of the civil war there are a lot of weapons around and there is still a lot of tribal conflicts."
Kieren Box

“The majority of the conflict is not government versus opposition, it’s tribal rivalries and cattle raidings. What used to be done with spears and bows and arrows now it’s done with machine guns.”

Mr Box said it was one of the most stressful but rewarding jobs he has done.

He said the exposure to dangerous situations created a strong camaraderie between healthcare workers.

“There’s a lot of gallows humour, it’s another way of coping with situations. A bit like the banter in M*A*S*H,” he said.

“At first you see people with guns and you’re a bit worried. After a couple of weeks it becomes an everyday occurrence, you’re like ‘oh that guy’s got a rocket-propelled grenade. He’s not shooting at me that’s OK’.”

Mr Box said his interest in international aid was sparked while studying at RMIT and La Trobe.

Between 2014 and 2016 he lived in Laos, helping set up an operating room.

His nursing work has also taken him to Nauru and East Timor.

He said a requirement of the role was to remain detached from the ongoing conflicts and focus on the patients.

Aid worker Kieren Box and colleagues in South Sudan.
"I’m not an expert on the political situation and why things have happened, all I am is a nurse going in to help people."
Kieren Box

Part of the appeal was getting outside his comfort zone and using his medical skills for good, he said.

“You get to go to places where tourists wouldn’t go. You get to see these amazing things, meet amazing people. It’s an adventure and it’s exciting but also you’re helping people and sort of making the world a better place.”

He said his next assignment could be working at a Syrian refugee camp or a return to South Sudan.

“I’d love to go back and see how things turn out. Wherever the need is I’ll go.”

Most cases in South Sudan involve firearm injuries.

Story courtesy of the Herald Sun. Written by Josh Fagan. Photos: ICRC/Florian Seriex

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