Courage under Fire
LAS alumna receives Medal of Valor for work in Africa.
When the bombs started falling, Susan Nagele sprinted for a large trench, located close to the makeshift hospital that she had set up in a refugee camp in Sudan, Africa. Nagele, a physician, will never forget crouching in the hole with about 20 others as the Sudanese government dropped bombs on its own people, and one exploded only about 600 feet away.
Later that same day, Nagele was amputating a bomb victim’s leg when a man was brought in with a mysterious ailment. The man was clearly dying, but she could find no serious entry or exit wound—just a minor shrapnel wound on the calf—so she treated him as best as she could.
After the man died, Nagele learned that he was from a people who believed that any wound to the back of the leg is fatal. That is why Nagele suspects that the man may have died from fright.
Fear is something that LAS alumna Nagele has had to face for all of her adult life as she battled AIDS, measles, snakebites, cancer, TB, tapeworms, and more in some of the most dangerous regions of Africa. This courage recently earned her the Medal of Valor, awarded by the American Medical Association.
Nagele grew up in Urbana, and she first became interested in working for people in need when she made volunteer trips to Appalachia with the Newman Center at St. John’s Catholic Church at the University of Illinois. As the daughter of a dentist, Nagele was interested in medicine, so she majored in biology and also volunteered to help with a vaccination program in Nicaragua during her junior year.
She finished at Illinois in 1978, received her medical degree from Southern Illinois University in 1981, and after her residency she entered the Catholic Church’s Maryknoll Lay Missioners program. Her first mission, in 1985, was in Kowak, Tanzania, where she helped to convert a dispensary into a 32-bed hospital.
During her first two years in Tanzania, measles was a major scourge, and she recalls seeing two to three children die from it every single day. In response, they instituted a vaccination program, and by the time she started her second three-year stint, measles was no longer a killer.
The other major threat was AIDS, which increased exponentially in the small village of Kowak. She saw eight AIDS patients in 1987, 13 in 1988, and 39 in 1989.
In 1991, Nagele moved to Sudan, which had been embroiled in a civil war for eight years, ever since the northern government tried to impose Sharia law on the entire country. She worked in Torit and then in Nimule, where she drove 14 miles three times a week to work in a camp for displaced people—the camp where bombs often fell.
Although she sometimes received assistance from other physicians, Nagele usually was the only trained doctor for 30,000 refugees in two camps.
After working for six years in a war zone, she moved to a less-violent region of Sudan and worked with semi-nomadic people who had never had contact with modern medicine. Then, in 2003, Nagele left Sudan for Kenya, where she spent four years creating a 32-bed health center. It was finished just in time, as the country descended into violence in January of 2008 following a disputed presidential election. Nine thousand displaced people poured into the small town, and she says, “I felt like I was back in Sudan.”
Today, Nagele works in Mombasa, traveling to 19 different clinics, consulting with staff, and teaching. But even after all of the years, one patient stands out in her mind—Natalia, a pregnant Sudanese woman who came to her in 1992. Nagele helped Natalia fight a pelvic infection so that the young woman could become pregnant. It was a desperate situation, for Natalia’s husband was going to look for a new wife if she couldn’t have a child. When Natalia was four months pregnant, the war forced her and Nagele to flee the area, and they went in different directions. Nagele assumed she would never see her again.
Nagele returned to Sudan for a celebration in 2008, and as she walked through the crowd of thousands of people, greeting old friends, she suddenly realized that she knew one of the cooks working at the event.
It was Natalia.
“Natalia looked at me, and she shouted, ‘Susan!’” Nagele recalls. “Then the two of us ran to each other, and if hugs could kill, we both would have been dead.”
She learned that Natalia had given birth to a healthy baby girl in 1992. In fact, that girl—now 16 years old—was at the celebration, so Natalia brought her daughter to see Nagele.
“What is your name?’ Nagele asked in English.
“When the girl didn’t understand,” she says, “I spoke in a simple form of Arabic and asked again, ‘What is your name?’ And she said, ‘My name is Susan.’”
Nagele was stunned: The girl had been named after her.
“I don’t have any children of my own,” she says, “but I have a feeling there are a few children out there because of what we did.”
By Doug Peterson