Stories from a nurse/midwife in times of crisis

December 1, 2020

New Zealand nurse and midwife Barbara Walker has spent most of her working life among some of the world’s most challenging and heart-breaking situations.

This year she published her book, Purple Hands, which records stories from a 21-year-long career working overseas in times of crisis. It also records her faith and call to become a missionary nurse.

Hers has been an illustrious career. As well as been honoured with a Queen’s Service Order in 2000 for her work overseas, Walker gained a master of science in medical anthropology in 1995 from Brunel University in London. Back in New Zealand, further study led to her being ordained as an Anglican priest and becoming a hospital chaplain – all these achievements while struggling with the challenges of dyslexia.

Barbara Walker holding a baby, her first delivery, in Las Dhure Camp, Somalia
Barbara Walker holding a baby, her first delivery, in Las Dhure Camp, Somalia, 1980.
Most of Walker’s assignments have been with World Vision and some as a nurse and midwife with mission hospitals – camps in Thailand overflowing with Cambodian refugees, midwifery and nursing in Somalia in 1980 (she is pictured here in Las Dhure Camp with her first delivery) as civil war swept the country, Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, HIV/AIDs work in Zambia and Tanzania in the early ’90s, to name just a few.

“Over the years, I have been interviewed by many news organisations, both here and overseas. I have also kept diaries, letters and scrapbooks, so I had plenty of material to draw on. Reliving some of the appalling situations I have been part of often brought me to tears, but the experience has also been cathartic and healing.”

Walker describes the book as a tribute to the “amazing national staff” she has worked with around the world, including traditional birth attendants, local doctors and nurses, and interpreters. “These people welcomed me and allowed me to work in partnership with them. They taught me so much.”

Walker finally returned to New Zealand in 1996 following a death threat in Mozambique. She was physically and emotionally exhausted, suffering from unrecognised post-traumatic stress disorder. Returning to nursing was not easy, though she did work in Northland for three years as the first community health manager for Hauora Hokianga.

Her current role as lead chaplain at Hawke’s Bay Hospital is “the icing on the cake”, she says. “Nothing in my career has ever been wasted – now it’s all come together.”

Purple Hands can be ordered from Walker at revbjwalker@xtra.co.nz or from publisher Philip Garside at bookspgpl@gmail.com. A copy can also be borrowed from the NZNO library.