Jill Seaman first met the Nuer people of sub-Saharan Africa in 1989 while helping Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) respond to an epidemic of kala azar. When Jill arrived among the Nuer, more than 50 percent of the population had already succumbed to the para-site-borne infection.
The posting among the Nuer was the first job Jill was offered after she completed her medical training at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She recalls, “Every evening I would look down the dirt airstrip and see a line of ‘stick’ people—people so malnourished they had trouble standing up—using their last strength to get to our treatment center. We worked with few supplies, without food for patients, and all attempts to get potable water in the midst of this war zone failed. But with the blessing of MSF, we demonstrated that we could train local people and successfully treat a huge epidemic—in a war zone and without a hospital…Treatment for kala azar requires a month of injections and there is always the risk of death because the patients are in such a weakened state. Still, 89 percent of our patients survived in those early years, and I became a part of the whole there.”
In the late 1990s, the region—still in danger from kala azar—was ravaged by two new threats: war and tuberculosis (TB). “It was a devastating time,” says Jill, “and no NGO in the region was willing to undertake treatment of TB because it requires six solid months of drug therapy—something thought to be virtually impossible to provide in a situation like this. Sjoukje de Wit, a nurse, and I decided to try. We were two crazy women trying to show that even under these most desperate circumstances, people wanted treatment enough to complete a six-month course of therapy.”
In 2000, Jill and Sjoukje set up their own clinic with money raised from friends. Jill says, “We were blessed with success. Even more for- tunate was that we did so at a time when others were interested in TB treatments. MSF took over our program, and Sjoukje and I were able to move on to other areas that desperately needed help.”
Describing her experiences to photojournalist Bruce Strong, Jill says, “There are times when I have been completely scared, when our village was attacked and burned to the ground…I was completely panicked. There’ve been times when the planes go overhead and I know there is a lot of bombing; sometimes I just have to close my eyes and say, ‘What are you going to do now? Don’t be scared; take a deep breath and do what you want to do.’ But that isn’t the worst thing that’s happened. The worst thing that happens overseas is rationing care—how much time are you going to spend with someone who is sick, what medicine are you going to use, how much effort are you going to use to get special medicine for someone who is especially sick?…These types of things are incredibly horrible…because you see people com- ing in and they are just skeletons and you think, ‘I’m going to eat dinner tonight? That’s just not right.’”
Jill, born in 1952 in Moscow, Idaho, learned generosity at a young age from her parents, who, she says, “were wonderful and always helped me help others.” She recalls her parents encouraging her to be generous, giving her bas- kets of the fruits and vegetables they had grown so that she could deliver them to neighbors.
Today, Jill divides her time between provid- ing care to the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska and to individuals in South Sudan. She works under what many consider impossible conditions with those suffering from abject poverty as well as disease, yet considers herself lucky. “I’m very fortunate to have found a place where what I’ve been trained to do can be put to good use,” Jill says. “I can’t imagine a bigger honor.”