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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
'I was ready for a challenge'
Jane Elliott
BBC News Online health staff

Helle Mugeridge
Helle wanted to take on a challenge

When Helle Mugeridge turned 60 she packed her bags and set off for Cambodia.

"The children were off my hands, my husband was capable of looking after himself and I felt that I was ready for a challenge."

Helle signed herself up for Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and was assigned 18 months as a safe motherhood trainer/adviser in the national reproductive health programme, based in Phnom Penh.

Her prime objective was to ensure better maternal and infant health as well as safe births.

Trained

But she was also assigned the difficult role of changing attitudes towards the poor, so that everyone was given the same respect irrespective of social status.

"The whole purpose of it was to improve maternal and child health. We were looking at maternity care, safe labour, family planning etc."

When I got there I was very impressed
Helle Mugeridge

Helle was also involved in providing a checklist for ensuring better standards for midwifes.

"We had to ensure whether they knew about hygiene, how to cut the cord and how to check for problems.

"Whether they knew what advice to give on family planning and what they could do in terms of giving the pill or sterilisation.

"I also wrote a programme for healthcare workers and managers about changing their behaviour and personal communication.

"The problem out there was they did not have the same respect of patient care that we do and we were trying to make them aware of things like ethics, even basic things such as how to greet patients.

"The poor were treated quite badly, so we were trying to improve attitudes."

Helle first trained as a nurse, before working as a midwife, health visitor and then private consultant, so she was ideally placed to train others in Cambodia.

Although shocked by the maternal and infant death rates in Cambodia, Helle admitted that she had been impressed by the country.

"I did enjoy it on so many different level, working with Cambodians and building up the health service from scratch.

"I came out thinking I was going to a developing country, but when I got there I was very impressed."

Poverty

But she admitted that she did find the grinding poverty depressing.

"I think the most difficult thing to deal with was the poverty angle and because I lived in the capital Phnom Penh the poverty was very centralised there.

"There was a lot of begging and that was very testing it was a big thing to get used to.

As well as hands on role, the training side of her work meant Helle spent much of her time travelling to the provinces.

She said that one of the nicest things about working with VSO was that they did not allow her age to be a bar to recruitment.

"VSO is so refreshing they are not ageist in the slightest bit.

"While I was there I only had the minor illnesses and stayed healthy, much more so than my younger colleagues.

"Also I think when you are older you tend to be much more focussed on your work."

Helle said that in Cambodia older women, like herself, tended to command more respect from the locals.

"When you are older you tend to have more respect. Women of 60 are almost expected to be in their graves, because the life expectancy there for a woman is 57."

But she said she had been lucky that her family were so supportive to the idea of her working abroad.

"My adult children had mixed responses to my news that I was going to Cambodia. They thought 'great mum, good on you.' But they would have also thought that they were going to miss me.

"I would definitely recommend people to do this if they can because they will find it stimulating.

"It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but there was always family commitment before.

Recruit

In 2002 VSO recruited 137 medics like Helle, these ranged from hospital nurses and doctors to psychologists and HIV/Aids professionals.

And Graeme Chisholm, of VSO, said experienced staff like Helle were always needed.

"We are looking for professionals with at least two years experience,

"The sort of people that we have volunteering tend to find it reinvigorating and that it motivates their careers.

"Often it gets them closer to what they thought their career was going to provide them with," he said.




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