'You just get in and do it': Australian Red Cross nurses awarded Florence Nightingale Medal

Barbara McMaster in South Sudan
Barbara McMaster in South Sudan Source: Australian Red Cross

A record five Australian Red Cross aid workers have been awarded the highest international distinction a nurse can receive - the Florence Nightingale Medal.

It is an award named after British nurse Florence Nightingale, who in the 1850s became known as the "Lady of the Lamp" for her reforming nursing practices of British soldiers during the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale Medal winner, Australian nurse Barbara McMaster, has devoted her life to giving care to those who need it most.

Her Red Cross career has spanned more than a decade and taken her to countless countries, many of those poverty-stricken, war inflicted or battling the effects of a natural disaster.

She remembers her very first mission in Juba, South Sudan, where she helped to save a little boy suffering from tetanus.

"In our world it's a preventable disease, there's a vaccination for it. It's a terrible thing. They go into muscle spasm, this kid was like an ironing board. The jaw was clenched, they can't eat, drink," McMaster said.

But her tireless work continued, taking her to Afghanistan. A bomb blast one night saw her called to a local hospital.

"When we got there, it was just chaos," she said. "There were badly injured people lying in the corridors, there were deceased people lying in the foyer, the operating theatres had people lined up waiting to get in.

"At that point I thought, you know, this isn't good. But then you just get in and do it. You get in and do it and do what you can for who you can," she said.

Sometimes, it was about offering so much more than physical help.

"There were a lot of people there who were beyond help, so we had to recognise that and just try to make them as comfortable as we could. Which, you know, that was very hard," Ms McMaster said.

"They had no family there, so just to be there to hold their hand until they were unconscious."

The job has meant spending up to a year away from home on any given mission.

Barbara McMaster
Barbara McMaster working in South Sudan.
Red Cross

Ms McMaster found herself responding to natural disasters, including the Pakistan floods in 2010 and then the Haiti earthquake.

"Going to Haiti, Pakistan, they were very short-term because you can't live in a tent for a long time, even though in Haiti, by the time I got there, about the 4th, 5th or 6th rotation, we had showers, two room showers made of cardboard, proper cardboard. It was five star camping," she said.

Following her heart, she went to care for Ebola victims in Sierra Leone.

"I didn't really think that much," Ms McMaster said. "I didn't weight it up too much. I just knew I had to go.

"The images we had on television were horrifying and I think out of all the places I'd been to my family and friends were most worried about me going there."

Barbara McMaster
Barbara McMaster assembling a field hospital in Pakistan in 2010.
Red Cross

She recalls spending up to half an hour getting dressed in the protective suits and working in pairs to make sure each person was properly attired.

"An oversuit, gumboots, a hood, goggles, a mask, gloves and then a heavier rubber apron over the top of that," she said.

"Sierra Leone is a tropical country, you'd be having a sauna inside the suit, which is why you can't stay in the treatment area for very long.

"The risk there is that people might faint and then that puts them at risk to get you out because you can't take the mask and goggles off."

Barbara McMaster
Barbara McMaster working in Haiti.
Red Cross

And it's for these harrowing experiences and captivating stories, Ms McMaster has been recognised.

The Florence Nightingale Medal is given to those who have displayed exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled, or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster.

It can also be awarded to those who have provided exemplary services or a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education.

Recipients for the medal are nominated by Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from around the world.

Ms McMaster, together with fellow Australians Ruth Jebb, Catherine Fry, Anne Carey and Catherine Salman are some of the 39 nurses from 22 countries honoured this year.

DATELINE (2014) Ebola's Epicentre