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Maningrida to Manhattan

4 Jul 2017

Registered Nurse Sue Ellen Kovack left her nomadic lifestyle as a remote area nurse in Australia for the Big Apple in November 2016. As she says, she went “from one extreme (in so many ways), to another.” Here’s her story.

Cana­di­an-born Sue Ellen Kovack moved to Aus­tralia 25 years ago, con­tin­u­ing her nurs­ing career in oper­at­ing-the­atre work. Lit­tle did she realise the dra­mat­ic turns her life would take. 

A few years lat­er, Sue Ellen was intro­duced to the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by friends who had just returned from Loki­cho­gio in Kenya, on the Sudanese bor­der. That was just the start. 

It sound­ed fas­ci­nat­ing, and they need­ed the­atre nurs­es,” Sue Ellen says. This was long before South Sudan became a country. 

I loved the work, the con­tacts I was mak­ing, and was thrilled, in my own small way to be mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the world. 

Then I was off to Free­town, in Sier­ra Leone, from 2001 – 2002 work­ing with the ICRC again. I worked on reha­bil­i­tat­ing the oper­at­ing the­atre after it was dec­i­mat­ed in the 1999 rebel attacks.” 

Back in Aus­tralia, Sue Ellen com­menced a Mas­ters of Pub­lic Health (MPH) at James Cook Uni­ver­si­ty where she met Christo­pher Cliffe, then Nurs­ing Direc­tor for Top End Remote Health in the NT, now our CEO, who invit­ed her to apply for the remote nurs­ing ori­en­ta­tion program. 

I had no idea what I was get­ting into,” she says. “ I just knew that change was in order.” 

Sue Ellen moved to Man­ingri­da in 2005 where she spent sev­en years, con­tin­u­ing to hone her RAN skills. I learned all my remote skills from my men­tor, Michael Jenk­ins, who hap­pens to be my cur­rent first report­ing offi­cer,” she says. From there it was casu­al work for a few years work­ing remote regions in Tas­ma­nia, Tor­res Strait and the Cape, West­ern Aus­tralia and a few stints in the Cocos-Keel­ing Islands.” 

Then came the call out for nurs­es to work in the Ebo­la epi­dem­ic in mid-2014

Yes, I want­ed to go and I thought my knowl­edge of infec­tion con­trol, viral haem­or­rhag­ic dis­eases would be use­ful.” (Sue Ellen had Las­sa Fever in her pre­vi­ous trip to Sier­ra Leone, and stud­ied this fas­ci­nat­ing dis­ease whilst doing her Masters.) 

With that pre­vi­ous mis­sion to Sier­ra Leone under her belt, Sue Ellen says she knew the strug­gle ahead would be long and dev­as­tat­ing. I want­ed to help, and at that time no one was real­ly putting up their hands to go,” she points out. 

CRANAplus mem­bers will recall our con­fer­ence in 2014 when Sue Ellen, on her return from her human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion to Sier­ra Leone, spoke via video about her work with patients in the Ken­e­ma Ebo­la Treat­ment centre. 

After 25 years in Aus­tralia, Sue Ellen saw an ad in the CRANAplus mag­a­zine for a job in New York. I was ready to live and work clos­er to home and I knew that was the job I want­ed,” she says. 

My role as a Pro­fes­sion­al Nurs­ing Offi­cer for the Unit­ed Nations began in Novem­ber 2016. We work to pre­pare peo­ple for trav­el to 192 coun­tries: which vac­ci­na­tions are need­ed, what out­breaks are cur­rent­ly hap­pen­ing, how best to take care of their health while away. We are an occu­pa­tion­al health clin­ic, involved in doing var­i­ous assess­ments includ­ing ergonom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal assess­ments, health pro­mo­tion, and keep­ing peo­ple safe while trav­el­ing is a big part of this pro­fes­sion. We also are on emer­gency stand-by for any crit­i­cal health inci­dents and are cur­rent­ly redo­ing our emer­gency room so uti­liz­ing my skills from remote health as well. I am prepar­ing month­ly edu­ca­tion­al ses­sions for the staff, and my work as a facil­i­ta­tor on the Remote Emer­gency care cours­es has been invaluable.” 

Sue Ellen has com­menced French lessons twice a week, and has tak­en a cou­ple of cours­es on man­age­ment skills, one of them being com­pe­ten­cy based inter­view skills. 

I trav­elled to Haiti this year to take part in a health risk analy­sis trip. It was won­der­ful to be back in the field again,” she says. 

But it’s not all work. Sue Ellen reports she has also expe­ri­enced Broad­way shows, com­e­dy clubs, Yan­kees games, jazz bars, hid­den speakeasies, fab­u­lous wine bars, organ­ic farm­ers mar­kets, retro din­ers and famous restau­rants like the Russ­ian Tea Room and Grand Cen­tral oys­ter bar and Katz’s Deli (I’ll have what she’s having). 

I have also been lucky enough to see Ricky Ger­vais, Louis CK, Jer­ry Sein­feld, Stephen Col­bert, and Bar­bra Streisand live,” she says. 

I ❤️ New York.”