Cathy Ellis has seen the many faces of altruism from hope to tragedy to hard truths about humanity.
After serving as an aid worker across the globe for nearly 20 years, she has wrestled with such complexities and come to a conclusion that despite the hardships, “I know that I always receive more than I give.”
The retired nurse has worked in El Salvador, Honduras, the Balkans, Liberia, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since moving to Orcas three years ago, Ellis has volunteered on her home turf at the animal shelter, the senior center and the new hospital in Friday Harbor. She left nursing in 2009 and retired from aid work in 2010 after deciding to “leave that job to another generation.”
In between her time overseas she spent 34 years as an emergency room nurse in Eugene, Ore. It was there that Ellis found the fire that would propel her towards a life of service.
As a student at the University of Oregon, she was surrounded by political activism and social justice. Sitting in her political science classes, she learned of atrocities around the world, horrors she couldn’t shake.
After graduating from nursing school, Ellis applied for the Peace Corps and did not hesitate to write that her reason for applying – to change the world. She recalls the Peace Corps staff responding to her by saying, “grow up and have some life experience before traveling to these rough places.”
So she worked as an emergency room nurse and by the mid-80s she was ready to get her hands dirty. She spent six months in El Salvador in a refugee camp, working for a Catholic organization out of San Antonio, Texas.
She and four other Americans were there as volunteers, but also carried on their shoulders a heavier burden – their very presence, as Americans, helped to ensure that the military treated the refugees humanely.
“Our goal was to protect and empower,” Ellis said.
Her other job was to instruct local health care providers how to be better care givers. She lived in a simple hut, washed her clothes in the river and hauled water.
“It was an awakening to the daily grind, to the reality of these stories I had heard,” she said. “There was real pain and unfair suffering because of misguided international policies.”
The time she spent there also opened her eyes to other aid workers and their sacrifices.
Ellis was amazed to see PeaceHealth nuns from the northwest in El Salvador. Some would spend up to 30 years in the country helping people ravaged from the “never-ending” civil war.
In 1991, Ellis was given her first assignment with Northwest Medical Teams International. The destination? Northern Iraq in 1991 after the Gulf War. It was there that she had a first-hand look at the Iraq culture.
“There are so many good people in the Middle East,” she said. “There are so many people that are not radicals, the radicals are a minority.”
Her patients mainly consisted of children and the elderly. Watching them interact together made her realize how much common ground could be shared between the west and the east – cultures that seemed so different.
“Seeing families care about each other – it was heart warming and familiar,” she said.
Although Northwest Medical Teams International is a Christian organization, Ellis said that their priorities were health care, nutrition and civil responsibility, not pushing their religion.
In the morning, staff offered the medical team prayers for a safe travel on rough roads littered with land mines.
A few years later, in June 2002, Ellis spent a month in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan surrounded by mountain ranges.
“It was still pretty quiet there,” she said. “It was a fascinating look at a piece of the country where people still live like in medieval times.”
But even in those “quiet” days, the team never left their compound at night. It was Ellis’ first real experience of feeling “cloistered,” close to what she imagines the Afghan women experience daily.
“It is said that the women here will remove their burqas after the men lay down their arms,” wrote Ellis in an edition of the American Journal of Medicine.
She told the Sounder that she will probably never fully understand the full weight of that phrase, but she interprets it as words of hope and potential power.
In 2000, she spent three weeks helping to establish a tent clinic for the 40,000 flood victims in Mozambique. She asked herself questions like, can short-term access to modern health care make any difference in the lives of those in crisis?
During her time with Northwest Medical Teams International, Ellis was part of basic health care teams, offering primary care, rather than specialized care, like the surgery needs after a disaster.
She tried to stay positive even in the face of conditions like pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition. Not speaking the same language often added an extra element of difficulty. Once a young mother with a child bundled in her arms approached Ellis from a line of waiting mothers. Ellis remembers her face as serene – betraying the emergency.
Ellis smiled and asked her to wait – she would be next. Five minutes later, she discovered the baby had died while waiting.
Ellis described the next few moments as a “blur,” but she had little time to dwell on the tragedy as a line of people awaited her. She had to keep seeing patients.
It was only at night, when the patients were gone and in the utter blackness of a sky without city lights that Ellis had time to grieve.
She talked with fellow aid workers by candle light. They cried together and spoke about what suffering they had witnessed, about how people needed so much and they, the volunteers, had so little to give.
Other times, they laughed together at the lack of privacy, at the unpleasantness of having no water or bathroom facilities.
“We had to laugh to get through everything,” said Ellis.
After the earthquake in Haiti, Ellis only heard reports of chaos, riots and danger. When she landed in the country, she heard communities singing and outdoor fires blazing under starry skies.
“I felt totally safe,” she said.
The sounds of foreign voices singing was not only beautiful to Ellis’ ears, but also was a swift reminder of a singular truth. Whether it was the morning call to prayer or families singing softly in the distance – there was a message to Ellis that you are no longer home, but you are somewhere new and if you are willing to open your eyes and see, we will show you there is suffering and violence, but also beauty.
“We joined the communities in song,” said Ellis. “We joined the women in song and the children - children that were full of laughter.”