“Point of Light” delivers health in the jungle


Photoby Candace diCarlo

Navigating Amazon rivers, evading snakes and pirhanas, and dining on alligator and monkey are not what one would normally consider part of a nurse’s everyday work.

But for three years, Nursing School master’s student Kathleen Mahoney did just that.

As part of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the largest nonprofit international medical relief organization, which sends more than 2,000 volunteers a year to more than 80 countries, Mahoney lived and worked in Boa Vista, Brazil, and the Javari Valley.

Although a colleague of hers almost died of a snake bite, Mahoney remained determined to serve villagers in the face of her often treacherous working conditions. “The Brazilian people are so generous, warm and resourceful,” Mahoney explained. “It was a privilege to live and work with them.”

The Wellesley, Mass., native and Georgetown University Nursing School graduate trained and supervised indigenous community health workers with malaria-control programs, including the early diagnosis and treatment of malaria using microscopy.

Traveling from village to village by bush plane, land cruiser, canoe, horseback or on foot, she also treated various upper respiratory, diarrheal and tropical diseases, delivered a few babies, set some broken bones and treated several snake bites.

For her humanitarian efforts, Mahoney received the Daily Point of Light Award on Oct. 21, 1999. The Daily Point of Light Award was established by former President George Bush and is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, The Points of Light Foundation, and the Corporation for National Service.

“It was great to receive an envelope in the mail with the only return address being ‘The White House, Washington, D.C.,’” she gushed. “But a lot more people deserved the award than I did.”

The White House isn’t the only place recognizing Mahoney’s contributions. Working Woman magazine named Mahoney one of “The Top 20 Women under 30,” Magic 106.7 FM in Boston named her an “exceptional woman” and Main Line Today will name her one of the “Top 10 Area Women” in its March issue.

“It is a honor to represent both Doctors Without Borders and nursing as a profession,” Mahoney said. “These awards are important because they show that nurses can go anywhere and do anything.”

Mahoney has done just that, having worked in such diverse locations as California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, England (where she received a certificate in tropical medicine), the Netherlands (where she underwent extensive training with Doctors Without Borders) and the Dominican Republic (where she established makeshift clinics in mountain villages as part of the Institute of Latin American Concern), in addition to Brazil.

It comes as no surprise that Mahoney, a linguaphile fluent in Portuguese and studying Spanish and French, wants to remain heavily involved in international health and advocacy, training people to work in disaster relief in remote areas and contributing to grass-roots political organizations. She reminisces fondly about her days of bathing in rivers, sleeping in hammocks and eating alligator, monkey and bugs.

“Alligator is the best meat I’ve ever had,” she insisted.

Originally published on February 17, 2000