Cheryl Robertson has spent three decades working in countries ripped apart by war, trauma, and displacement. She's not about to stop now.
By Meleah Maynard
Any romantic notions that Cheryl Robertson (M.P.H. ’88, Ph.D. ’00) might have had about being a public health nurse were shattered in 1985, when she found herself driving down a rutted road in a beat-up Land Rover, trying to get a dying pregnant woman to a hospital in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Howling in agony in the backseat, the woman desperately needed a cesarean section to save her and the baby, which was positioned sideways.
“Move, move, move, a woman is dying here!” screamed Robertson, honking the horn at the drivers of two trucks that were blocking the road. One of the men was smoking while the other ate lunch. Instead of moving, they just stared at her, so she jumped out of the car and implored, “Can’t you hear her screaming?” They could, and they did nothing. Finally, when they’d finished their break, the men slowly got into their trucks and made way for the Land Rover to get through. As Robertson rumbled past, one of the drivers leaned out of his window and said matter-of-factly, “What’s another dead woman in Uganda?”
His remark went against everything Robertson, then 30 and on her first trip abroad as a public health nurse, believed about people’s inherent goodness. But her own reaction to the man upset and confused her even more: “I thought, ‘I hate this. Why am I here?’” she recalls. Up until that point, she had imagined global public health work was “sitting on the ground with village women sharing stories and teaching health.” Later, while mulling over what had happened after the woman died at the hospital, she realized that not caring whether women live or die isn’t okay in anybody’s culture. “And that was the beginning of my thinking that what I was seeing wasn’t normal, that something was very wrong,” she says.
From that point on, Robertson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, stopped seeing herself as a do-gooder providing primary health care around the world. Instead, she began trying to understand what happens to people and their communities when they suffer the worst things imaginable. One thing she learned for certain: Unending war, trauma, and displacement destroy community and civility. “People often expect those who suffer horribly to behave honorably,” Robertson says. “But that doesn’t always happen. Chronic violence often breeds coarseness, self-preservation, and cruelty.”
Gidget Goes to Africa
Straight talking and five feet tall with short, bright red hair, glasses, and a knack for coordinating mismatched jewelry with jumpers worn over leggings, Robertson, 60, looks more like an artist than a nurse researcher. Since she first lived in Uganda, she’s worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, and elsewhere in the world. For her dissertation, she went to Bosnia, during and after the war, working with mothers and children after the fall of Srebrenica. To escape the ethnic cleansing that had taken most of the men from their villages, the women told Robertson how they had fled with their children into the forest where they survived as best they could.
Prior to joining the U, Robertson served as director of international programs at the St. Paul–based Center for Victims of Torture, a role that took her to some of the most turbulent and impoverished parts of the world. Such long-term global engagement has afforded her the opportunity to witness both great change for the better—as in the case of Uganda—as well as seemingly bottomless suffering in the DRC. Thirty years of practice in struggling countries continues to inform her research on community-based healing in the aftermath of war and civil conflict, her work with refugee families in Minnesota, and with displaced communities abroad. It has also informed her teaching. “It has been an amazing synergy,” says Robertson, who this fall will co-teach one of the University’s new Grand Challenges courses, Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues. The curriculum is part of the U’s commitment to helping solve some of Minnesota’s, and the world’s, most complex and urgent problems.
Robertson insists she is not fearless. Rather, she says, what enables her to go places others fear is her faith that most people are good and that the odds are in her favor. Born in Los Angeles the week that Disneyland opened, she could see the fantasyland’s Matterhorn bobsled ride from her front yard. That sight, she figures, forever colored her worldview. “I just always think it’s all gonna be okay,” she says, laughing while stroking one of the two fat, fluffy cats who share her Minneapolis townhouse. “I get teased sometimes for being naïve, because I say that I depend on the kindness of strangers, but I do,” she admits with a shrug. “Most of the time, for most people in most parts of the world, nothing bad happens. That doesn’t mean something horrible won’t happen, but it usually doesn’t.”
Raised by loving parents who met at a roller rink as teenagers and had limited education—her dad finished eighth grade and her mom, high school—Robertson never even thought about going to college. Her dad often worked as a jockey and bareback bronco rider in the county fair circuit; her mom was mostly a homemaker until later in life, when she took a job with Weight Watchers. Like her dad, Robertson has always loved horses, and she rode “girl” rodeo in high school. At age 20, she moved to northern Arizona, taking up residence in a commune with a boyfriend she met in the back of a cattle truck.
She was taking anthropology classes at Prescott College when she spotted an ad in the Prescott Courier for nursing courses at nearby Yavapai College. “Be a Nurse for $100,” it read. Robertson, who had not considered nursing until that moment, now says it was the best $100 she ever spent. By 1978, with her two-year degree in hand, she was training to be a public health nurse on the Yavapai-Prescott Indian reservation. “I remember driving up north and drinking coffee with the young mothers while I talked with them about their new babies, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I can get paid for having fascinating conversations?’ I just fell in love with public health nursing.”
From there, she studied Spanish and anthropology for a year in Mexico City, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Ibero-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and worked as a public health nurse in migrant communities, homeless shelters, and in local families’ homes. In 1981, Minneapolis accidentally became Robertson’s home when she totaled her car downtown while driving through on her way back to the Southwest. Over the next 19 years, she married, raised three children, got divorced, and attended the U, earning a master’s degree in public health, followed by a Ph.D. in nursing. During that time, she traveled back and forth to Africa many times, starting with that first fateful first trip to Uganda, where she lived for an eventful two years that included being held hostage briefly while trying to flee the country during a military coup. “It was like Gidget Goes to Africa,” she says, flinging her arms out wide. “I had no idea what I was doing, but boy did I get educated.”
'The Dork Factor'
Robertson usually spends Christmas with her parents in California. Last year, though, she conjured up a story so they wouldn’t worry and settled in at home to wait out her mandatory 21-day quarantine following a month-long trip to Ebola-ravaged Liberia in late November. The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) invited her and Dorcas Kunkel, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing, to join a team of health professionals to help open a new Ebola treatment center in Fish Town, a remote community near the Ivory Coast border. With Ebola killing dozens of people by the day, she thought, “I’m a nurse. I’m Catholic. It only makes sense to go.”
During the monthlong trip, Robertson focused on helping team members cope with the frustrations that come with working in the developing world while Kunkel identified excellent nurses in the community. After training in underfunded, understaffed treatment centers in Monrovia where dying patients of all ages lay on plastic mattresses in hot, ill-equipped tents, she and the team experienced the uncoordinated “hurry up and wait” scenario that comes with global emergency response. “One of my goals was to help people on the team accept the messiness inherent in the situation and identify ways to contribute,” she recalls. “People would say to me, ‘This is so incredibly disorganized,’ and I would say, ‘Yes, it is. It’s like trying to turn around the Titanic.’ I was very proud to be on the ARC team.”
During their last week, Robertson and two other members of the team visited health centers in the rural part of the country. At the most remote clinic, a three-and-a-half-hour hike west of Fish Town, the team was greeted by the Joproken village chief and soon found themselves hosting a community meeting, complete with dancing and singing. “It was not planned, and we were ill prepared, of course, but it was a great opportunity to answer questions and hear what people are worried about,” she says. Some of the best opportunities for learning are often accidental, says Robertson, who in April received the University’s 2015 Faculty Community Service Award, recognizing her leadership on the Ebola response team. “If you want to work in global health, the only way to cope and be of use is to be willing to do things outside of your skill set,” she explains. “You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It’s a message she conveys to her students every chance she gets, most pointedly in a lecture she calls “The Dork Factor.”
“Everywhere I go, I’ll always be a dorky white girl, ”Robertson says. She teaches students that getting to know a community means spending time with people and listening to their stories. “Part of being a dork is understanding that everyone knows you don’t belong there. If you never want to be uncomfortable, you’re not going to learn very much.” And there is always something to learn. For the last five years, Robertson has been an integral part of RESPOND project. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the program, led by the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is building public health workforce capacity to address emerging infectious diseases in Central and Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia. Robertson has been the U’s liaison to the DRC.
Of all the difficult places in the world Robertson has worked, she readily says DRC was the hardest. Rich in timber, diamonds, and minerals, the country’s people are among the world’s poorest, averaging just one meal a day. Millions have been maimed, raped, and killed as armed conflict has raged for years. Battered by shelling, the walls and ceiling of Robertson’s dank classroom at the University of Kinshasa were partially caved in. More than 1,500 nursing students crowded in to hear her lecture, which she delivered in a yell so the people leaning through the broken windows and perched in nearby trees had some hope of hearing her. Later, when she met with faculty at the University of Lubumbashi in a similarly devastated classroom and asked them to discuss possible research questions, a faculty member asked, “Can a goat get worms?” Another raised her hand: “Can a woman survive a sonogram?”
Robertson stood, silently composing herself. “I realized then that I needed to throw away my slides,” she recalls, her eyes tearing up. “I actually feel choked up because it’s just so unfair that faculty and students don’t have the means to leave the country and go to conferences and work with international groups,” she explains. “Without access to literature, without access to the Internet, how can they know what is already known?” But the problem, as she has long known, is much deeper than that. At Lubumbashi, while teaching a class on armed conflict and health, a faculty member stood and said,“I’m interested in this class, but I’m not sure how relevant it will be because I don’t feel like my life has been affected by conflict.” Looking around at the devastated room, she thought, “Oh my gosh, yes, you have.” But, seeing the normalcy the man felt, she replied, “Well, just bear with me, okay?”
Robertson sees hope. She notes that in the last 30 years Uganda has successfully rebuilt from conditions similar to those in DRC today. With the RESPOND Project funded for a second phase, she plans to return there to work. For inspiration, she looks to the smart students from the U and from the African network universities with whom she has been working for the last several years. “This kind of youth involvement taking control of the complex problems their countries face was unimaginable 30 years ago,” she says. “But we’re really seeing a new cadre of young people who are very determined to tackle the toughest problems and it’s incredibly exciting to be a part of that.”
Meleah Maynard (B.A. ’91) is senior editor of Minnesota.