New Zealand Permanent Mission Geneva, Switzerland

Dr Jenny McMahon ‘addicted’ to Red Cross

Eritrea 1985

Jenny McMahon began her relationship with New Zealand Red Cross in 1983 as a surgical nurse on the Thai-Kampuchea border. Now, 30 years on with numerous Red Cross deployments and post graduate qualifications under her belt she has taken on the role as the National President of New Zealand Red Cross.

Jenny’s interest in healthcare began in her early years with her  father being a doctor and her mother, a nurse. She lived in Cromwell, Waiouru, Malaysia, Singapore and England, travelling wherever her parents’ skills were needed.

Becoming a registered nurse in 1978, later adding a midwifery qualification, Jenny started her career in a busy post-cardiac surgery and cardiology department in New Zealand followed by a period as a civilian with the New Zealand forces Hospital in Singapore and periods of nursing in the Australian outback.

The outback gave Jenny the chance to test herself in a more extreme environment spending time in Woorabinda, an Aboriginal reserve in Central Queensland where she had her first taste of numerous medical problems, supplemented by frequent major traumas. It was her introduction to some of the problems indigenous groups face.

The experience gave her the perfect background for becoming a New Zealand Red Cross aid worker.

Whilst working as an intensive-care nurse in Wellington she heard Red Cross was in need of senior nurses in a surgical hospital on the Thai-Kampuchea border. Jenny was deployed and continued to take short term contracts for New Zealand Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for the next fifteen years.

Jenny describes aid working as addictive.

“Seeing a child flourish from being incredibly sick to bouncing around being cheeky is incredibly rewarding”

Having worked in Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, South Sudan, and Mozambique and more, Jenny has had some of the most rewarding and frightening experiences of her life.

She describes the thrill of seventeen hour days working in frontline situations treating patients who had been caught up in armed conflict and disasters, to situations one can barely imagine including being taken hostage and ambushed.

Her healthcare skills were not the only thing tested in these situations, but her strength, resilience and negotiation skills.

Jenny talks freely about her experiences and describes the time she needed to be early and get supplies to a new feeding centre in a village in Eritrea during a time of persistent battling between the military and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.

“The road between the main centre and the village was daily mined with explosives, and I managed to negotiate with the leaders of both sides to keep the road clear of mines for two days so we could carry out our work. Both sides kept their word. But I drove incredibly carefully all the same!” she remembers.

It is no wonder she is a  recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal, one of highest international distinctions a nurse can receive and continues to be a champion of the work of Red Cross in her latest role as New Zealand Red Cross National President.

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