Andrew Cameron OAM has spent his life helping others, in a journey that has taken him from the war-torn regions of South Sudan to the arid landscape of outback Queensland. Contact checked in with Cameron, a decorated nurse and humanitarian worker, during his latest mission to Afghanistan.
There was no fancy cake for Andrew Cameron OAM on his 60th birthday in December last year. Nor were there any lavish Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Living less than three kilometres from the frontline in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province has a way of spoiling the mood.
But it was a birthday he will never forget.
“There is a fair bit of fighting happening close by. You can hear the rat-tat-tat-tat of the machine guns and the booming of the cannons day and night,” Cameron told Contact from his sandbagged home in the city of Lashkar Gar.
Andrew Cameron outside his sandbagged home in Afghanistan.
Cameron (Master of Tropical Health ’95) landed in Afghanistan in December last year as part of a 12-month humanitarian mission with the Red Cross – his third year spent in the country.
As a nurse and project manager, his role involves monitoring and improving the health of detainees in prison, assisting wounded soldiers and training other soldiers in first aid.
The area is among the more volatile provinces in southern Afghanistan, where opposition forces are actively operating in its various districts.
“I have lived in places like this before and know the environment and situation relatively well,” Cameron said.
“When you’re working in such a remote and challenging environment, you need to know your limitations and be resourceful with what you have.”
UQ's ......... presents Andrew Cameron with his Ebola Medal for Service in West Africa.
Since joining the Red Cross in 2006, Cameron has embarked on humanitarian missions to Georgia, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, South Ossetia and Kenya. In 2014, he landed in Sierra Leone during the devastating Ebola outbreak.
Cameron has been recognised for his humanitarian work with a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2013 and a Florence Nightingale Medal in 2011, the highest international award for nurses, for “exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict and natural disaster”.
He was also recently awarded the Ebola Medal for Service in West Africa by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his work during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, and earlier this year received the Humanitarian Overseas Medal from the Australian Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d).
Cameron said his work in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak was particularly challenging as he took on the responsibility of burying the dead.
“The Ebola outbreak happened and I considered how I would feel if it were my family who were sick in an area in desperate need of medical personnel, so I had to volunteer. Coordinating the burials was a hard job, but we tried to give the deceased as much dignity as possible.”
Cameron recalled some of the more interesting encounters during his various missions with the Red Cross, including the time he was tasked with teaching the rules of war to rebel fighters at a primary school in South Sudan.
“I was going through the training with them, teaching them the rules of armed conflict, and it was quite bizarre seeing these burly men dressed in camouflage khaki sitting cross-legged on that abandoned school room floor,” he said.
Originally working as a labourer in New Zealand, Cameron began training as a nurse at the age of 19 at Hutt Hospital and was the only man in a class of 44.
Cameron said there were originally restrictions on where men were allowed to practise.
“I wasn’t allowed to go near many female wards. But I was still assessed on my understanding of obstetrics, gynaecology and female health issues, so I had to teach myself everything from a textbook. It made me more determined to be a better nurse. I went on to achieve my midwifery registration and just kept learning new things, such as intensive care and emergency medicine.”
After moving to Australia and working in a remote clinic at Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria for seven years, Cameron completed a Bachelor of Nursing at La Trobe University in 1991. He said it later became apparent he would need a higher research degree to further his career.
“I wanted a master’s degree, so I applied to UQ and was accepted into their Master of Tropical Health program. I had some of the best times of my life at UQ and I met my wife, Daniella, there. I was also given the opportunity to travel to the Solomon Islands to conduct a research project on the epidemiology of malaria, which solidified my interest in remote and tropical medicine.
“My studies at UQ gave me a solid foundation of knowledge which I have drawn from in all kinds of harsh situations over the last 20 years.
"Parasitology, epidemiology, entomology, disease control and health promotion. I have a passion for this work and try to make the most of it in all kinds of situations, for which I have to thank UQ for that wonderful opportunity.”
When he isn’t on overseas missions with the Red Cross, Cameron works as the Director of Nursing at one of Australia’s most remote medical clinics in Birdsville – more than 700 kilometres by road from the nearest base hospital in Mount Isa.
“Birdsville is located on the edge of the formidable Simpson Desert, so it is one of the most remote places in our vast country to have an established clinic. I can be out of the clinic for 12 hours or more, retrieving someone from the desert,” Cameron said.
“I love working out in the community and treating patients. If I worked in a big city, I would be confined to an office, but out here I can make a real difference.”
For more information about the Red Cross, visit redcross.org.au.