Red Deer couple provides medical care and finds roots in Africa

  • Feb. 12, 2014 6:10 p.m.

For Vanessa Higgins-Nogareda, her recent trip to Kenya was not just a chance to provide medical aid to children in a developing country; it was also a homecoming.

Higgins-Nogareda, a nurse in the anticoagulation department of Red Deer Regional Hospital, and her husband Gustavo Nogareda, a cardiologist at the hospital, visited southwestern Kenya late last year with the A Better World medical team. The team visited communities supported by A Better World and worked with local medical staff to provide care that local people would not otherwise receive.

It was the first trip to the African country for Gustavo, but Higgins-Nogareda was returning to the country where she spent her early years. Her parents, veterinarian Dr. Pat and Grace Higgins, from Canada, took her to Africa when she was just three-months-old, then returned to Canada when she was four. (Her sister Alanna was born there.) They worked a year and a half with the Turkana tribes near the town of Lodwar, then spent four years at Maji Moto working with the Masai people near the town of Narok. They ran a health dispensary and much more, building a school, water dams, irrigation systems and providing whatever assistance they could to the local people.

“At the time, our life seemed perfectly ordinary, but looking back I have so much respect and pride for what my parents did,” said Higgins-Nogareda. “They sacrificed years of their lives to serve others in need.”

She has vivid memories of her childhood in Africa despite her young age. “I remember playing with my dolls and the local Kenyan kids. They were fascinated with my blonde hair, which they thought looked like a cow’s tail.”

There were bouncy journeys by Landrover and motorcycle, and long walks on the savannah among the acacia trees. Unlike most Canadian kids, she also grew up with the threat of wild animals, and once found a zebra leg in the front yard – a lion’s leftovers from the night before. “I had decided one night to visit a friend on my own. When my mother found me she said, ‘Vanessa you can’t go walking by yourself at night or the hyenas will eat you!’”

After the medical tour, Higgins-Nogareda’s family joined the couple to renew their acquaintance with their former homes. “It was very special for my parents to reunite with the people in Maji Moto. People remembered them and the impact they had on the village.”

Despite her family’s work, the community still has many needs, she stresses. “For example, children walk up to 15 kilometres to get to school; they need bunk beds for the dormitory so the kids can stay overnight.”

Gustavo added that doing medical aid abroad was a long awaited dream for the couple.

“I was thrilled by the chance to work with the A Better World team in such a remote area with profound needs.”

He said ABW co-founder Eric Rajah and medical team leaders and Dr. Ray and Deryl Comeau created an inspiring atmosphere that was fun and productive.

“I was so touched by the story of a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who could not walk. His family brought him by scooter and his mother carried him on her back to see us. They so desperately wanted to help him,” he said.

A Better World is a Central Alberta-based international development organization that is managed and supported by volunteers. It has been improving lives in developing countries for more than 20 years.

– Weber

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