By CHARLOTTE MORTON
As one of the deadliest genocides raged around her, Annette Owttrim found solace in the moments of human strength and kindness she encountered while serving as a military nurse in Africa.
The 100-day Rwandan massacre saw more than 800,000 people butchered, making the 1994 atrocity one of the most brutal genocides in history.
Sitting on the couch in her living room, Annette speaks freely of her time in Rwanda, unlike many of her colleagues who continue to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
The 52 year-old described her time nursing in Rwanda as traumatic and harrowing, but she admired the compassion that she witnessed that let people die with dignity.
“It was the most beautiful nursing,” she said.
“Life is cheap in third world countries, and if someone’s not going to make it, then the family all lie in bed with them and let them die peacefully.”
“In Australia these days we’re too scared to let people die.”
Annette said during the Rwandan genocide, hospitals were scarce so patients often had to travel hours to receive medical treatment.
“We used to talk about this golden hour that you had to get someone in, if they are to have the best chance of surviving,” she said.
“In Rwanda, it used to take them seven hours to get to the hospital and then they would still survive.”
“I have learnt about the resilience of a body, of a person.”
23 years later, in 2017, Annette was forced to herself summon that inner strength to survive against the odds when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
As treatment complications were thrown at Annette after she started chemotherapy in 2018, her daughter, Sarah Mason, 21, acted as a pillar of strength, and vice versa.
But this was nothing new for the pair.
For a lot of Sarah’s childhood, her and her mother lived alone with their dog.
Sarah’s face lit up as she said, “we used to sleep together in the same bed, all three of us, Mum spooning me, me spooning the dog. That’s how we slept every night for a year when I was eight.”
“Our little mantra has always been, ‘it’s us against the world’.”
“Everyone seems to come and go in our lives, but we’ve always lasted through it,” she said.
“The biggest thing I have learnt from my Mum is that...no matter what life throws at you, you’ll get through it. There’s no choice. There’s not a choice between coping and not coping, there’s just coping.”
Sitting on the couch with her legs folded, Annette looked happier than ever.
With Sarah sitting beside her, Annette held back tears as she proudly said she is now cancer free and currently undergoing breast reconstruction.
Annette’s understanding of life’s challenges and its vulnerability is admirable, and it’s impossible not to notice the role nursing and her daughter, Sarah, has played in that.