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Summer 2007
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Photo courtesy Patrick Murphy

Assignment Africa

Four tours with Doctors Without Borders have left a Chico nurse with vivid memories

The past four years, since he began working with Doctors Without Borders, have been eventful ones in Patrick Murphy’s life. The organization, which is based in France and known to most of the world as Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF), is famous for providing medical care in war and famine zones, and the Chico nurse has seen things the rest of us find painful just to imagine.

He’s also seen extraordinary beauty and examples of human courage and endurance that will remain among his memories for the rest of his life.

Murphy (BS, Nursing, ’94), who is 51, had been a U.S. Army combat medic in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, so he was accustomed to dangerous work. But he had no clue what he was in for.

Murphy’s first assignment was in the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). He arrived there in February 2003. The country was then just emerging from a nasty civil war, and tensions were high. Death squads roamed the streets at night.

Murphy was part of a team of doctors and nurses, most of them French, assigned to a prison outside Abidjan, the country’s largest city and chief port. A deadly cholera epidemic had broken out inside the prison. The team’s job was to contain the disease in the prison and then eliminate it.

Built to house 1,500 people, the prison held more than 6,000, most of them political prisoners, some of them women and children, many of them deathly ill, some already dead.
The first time Murphy stepped inside the walls, he struggled not to vomit. The stench of the dead bodies and the 6,000 unwashed prisoners crammed into a prison without clean water or working toilets was overwhelming.

“I had never worked with the diseases I faced in that prison or with living standards so low as to cause those of us in the West to cry out against anyone doing this to animals,” he later wrote in a short memoir. “Hollywood has never created a horror movie as gruesome as what happens normally in that prison.”

Cholera is spread via feces-contaminated water, so the prison was a perfect incubator for the disease, and people “were dying like flies,” says Murphy. The MSF team set to work, first by establishing an infirmary, quarantining the sick prisoners, and putting them on antibiotics.

Longer term, it built rudimentary sewer and water systems, cleaned up the cells, and began an antimalarial campaign and a nutritional program. “It doesn’t do any good to treat people medically if they’re starving to death,” explains Murphy.

He worked every day until his body gave out. The pay was $600 per month that first year (it later doubled to $1,200). “You’re not doing it for the money,” he says. Nor are MSF workers danger lovers. “I can’t think of anybody I’ve worked with who looked for that,” he says, “but we do experience it.”

After seven months, another nurse arrived to take his place, and he came home to Chico to rest and spend time with his teenaged son.

Murphy has been a wanderer all his life. He grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, the son of a dispatcher for Pan American World Airways. By 1973, civil war was about to break out in Lebanon, and his father was transferred to New York. Murphy was 18, so he decided to join the Army. He went to Vietnam as a medic. The war was winding down, but he got plenty of combat experience.

He first came to Chico in 1977 to help his parents, who’d moved here, build a barn. He liked the town, and when he decided to turn his medic’s experience into a nursing degree, enrolled at California State University, Chico. He graduated in 1994 and worked at Oroville Hospital for eight years.

By then he’d met and married a Chico woman and had a son, Paul, who’s now 16. The marriage lasted seven years, but they remain friends and he considers Chico home, most of all because his son—his “touchstone”—is here.

Still, it’s hard to stay in one place. “There’s always something to learn someplace else,” he says, “and I don’t really care where I put my head at night.”

He’d read about MSF in a novel and checked on the Internet to find out if it really existed. When he learned it was real, he applied. He worried that MSF would look askance on his 20 years in the Army and National Guard, but he needn’t have. “I think the key was that I was someone who they could stick into an insecure situation and know I wouldn’t lose my cool,” he says.

Following his next assignment in Danané in Côte d’Ivoire, Murphy left tropical Africa behind and went to the hot grasslands of southern Sudan, to a Dinka village called Marial Lou. The Dinka—a tall, graceful people (basketball player Manute Bol is a Dinka)—are nomadic cattle herders who live in mud-and-thatch huts called tulkus.

For more than 20 years, they had been caught in the middle of a vicious civil war between rebel groups in the south and the government in the north. It’s estimated that as many as 2 million people died because of the war, which caused a famine throughout the region and continues in a similar form today in the Darfur region in western Sudan, with genocidal results.

MSF had built a mud-and-thatch hospital complex powered by solar panels in the village, the only medical clinic for hundreds of miles. It had a water pump, a full-fledged medical-surgery program, and a well-baby clinic. People would walk for days, carrying their children, to get to the hospital. There they were treated for things like malaria, guinea worm, “lots of gunshot wounds,” diarrheal diseases, malnutrition, and full-blown starvation.

The Dinka were barely removed from the Stone Age; they still carried spears and war clubs and went about largely naked, but now they also had the ubiquitous AK-47s. The children had known nothing but war. Schools were bombing targets, so they’d gotten no education, and the boys became fighters early in their teenaged years.

“They were wonderful people, generous to a fault, very easy to get along with,” says Murphy. The village had no electricity, no roads, “no water sometimes, and lots of evil bugs,” and the only entertainment was the occasional tribal dance.

Unless, that is, getting bombed counts as entertainment. The Sudanese Air Force’s old Russian Antonov planes would fly over, and crew members would roll the “bombs”—55-gallon drums packed with shrapnel and gunpowder and with a couple land mines strapped to the outside—out the cargo bay.

They rarely hit their targets, fortunately, but sometimes they did, so the sound of an approaching airplane was terrifying to the Dinka. Murphy remembers one occasion when he was in the midst of doing a C-section birthing. He was just removing the baby from the mother’s womb when every one of his nurses and aides suddenly ran out of the hospital. He hadn’t heard the plane, but they had.

By this time, Murphy had become a fully experienced MSF nurse and promoted to medical team leader. And, like any MSF nurse, he’d developed a range of skills that rivaled those of the doctors he worked with, including delivering babies, setting broken bones, repairing hernias, removing bullets, and closing chest wounds. All in all, the eight months he spent in southern Sudan “was an incredible experience,” he says. “It was such an eye-opener.”

Murphy is now back in Chico for an extended stay until his son graduates high school. He’s working at a local surgery center and has rented an apartment.

But Africa is never far from his mind. “The memories that bother me aren’t the ugly scenes,” he says. “It’s the faces of the kids, beseeching me for help.” He owns a small place on the beach in Kenya, and when his son graduates, he has every intention of returning to work with MSF in Africa—or wherever he’s sent.

He speaks affectionately and admiringly of the many people he’s worked with: doctors and nurses from all over the world, as well as local people trained to assist in the hospitals. And he is respectful of the thousands of villagers he met, people who summon great strength and courage every day just to accomplish the act of surviving and caring for their families and remaining, somehow, joyful.

One of the two great lessons he’s taken from his experiences in Africa is that, as he has written, “no matter what culture you come from, if you are just an average member of that culture, you want the same things as everyone else in the world—that is, to raise your kids and if possible to do something to where their lives are a little better than yours.”
The other thing he learned was that “if there is a god, she has to be a black African woman. They are the kindest, longest-suffering, most physically enduring, and hardest-working humans on the face of this planet.”

This article has been excerpted from the Chico News & Review. To read the entire article, visit

About the author

Robert Speer is news editor of Chico News & Review. He attended Chico State as a grad student in the mid-1970s and was editor of the Wildcat student newspaper in 1975.