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She is a Surgeon: Gabriela Portillo

a woman in a lab coat and surgical mask talks with bother her hands up in the air.

Photo: CARE

Photo: CARE

Gabriela Portillo shares the challenges and motivations of life as a humanitarian worker during an unprecedented pandemic. This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating EVERY Woman — the frontline workers, the entrepreneurs, the changemakers.

Gabriela Portillo is a surgeon and is a postgraduate degree candidate on health management. She is currently working on CARE’s COVID-19 humanitarian response in Honduras with the Prolempa Project, an initiative to increase the economic well-being of women and youth in the country’s rural Lempa region. The region is known as the Dry Corridor and its residents face severe droughts, water shortages and food insecurity due to lack of rain. With the arrival and spread of COVID-19, the team adapted its tactics and goals to the needs created by the pandemic.

She is part of the COVID-19 humanitarian response carried out with funding from the Canadian government. CARE and Prolempa are implementing the response, which consists in deliveries such as food packages, hygiene kits, agricultural supplies with family orchards, transfers, and supermarket vouchers. These deliveries take place in areas where the community, respecting social distancing guidelines, can learn about economic resilience, risk prevention during the pandemic and Gender based violence.

Gabriela carries out her work, informing on risk prevention during these deliveries.

“I am happy to be a humanitarian worker. There has been a great effort in the [COVID-19] response. Most of us involved in the project have not seen our families, yet the whole team remains COVID-19 negative and that is a huge relief for us. We are so aware of the responsibility we bear each time we visit a community.

“We use N19 masks to protect those that come into contact with us. Full protective PPE is something that we leave for hospital use, for those working in COVID-19 wards, even more exposed than us, those battling with the virus in the hospitals. [Here in Honduras] PPE is scarce, and they need it to protect their lives. We cannot arrive in a community in full PPE because that would create panic in the communities we visit.

“Throughout all this process, from families receiving food or cash transfers, women were the organizers, the leaders because they know the context.”

“We go to the communities to deliver food, cash transfers, and provide capacity building. We make sure we follow bio-security protocols. We check temperatures and explain the use of thermometers and how infrared thermometers are harmless. We ask for previous symptoms and make sure participants wash their hands and social distance. We provide masks. One of the lessons learned in one of the communities in the west part of Honduras is that many people do not have access to disposable masks and cannot afford to buy a mask. Many didn’t see the use of it and decided not to make getting a mask a priority. We came up with alternatives and found reusable masks in their traditional Lenca clothing. They used those with pride.

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“That way, we supported small business of women sewing these masks and strengthened preventive measures in the communities. All the masks have a filter and we advise them to wear these masks and combine their use with social distancing and washing hands.

“In this emergency response we are doing a bit of everything, from food baskets to tackle food insecurity, to providing toiletries for health and, in the case of women, we have always prioritized access to key products such as sanitary pads that are scarce and expensive in these areas. Very few times have I seen women’s needs prioritized and, in this project, we have made them a priority.

“For me, it has been a great experience. I am happy that CARE supports women leaders with capacity building, so they help in preventing COVID spread in their community, as well as working towards eradicating gender-based violence. I have met feminist organizations such as Las Hormigas and it was essential for our work to see how these women encouraged others to come forward and stop the cycle of violence. It is such a reward to see these women so confident in themselves. Throughout all this process, from families receiving food or cash transfers, women were the organizers, the leaders because they know the context. It is a key step to lead in the community in times like these.

a woman in a lab coat and surgical mask stands.
Photo: CARE

“The hardest bit about being a humanitarian worker is being away from my family. My dad is elderly with a chronic illness and I can see them just once a month when we do a breakfast over video conference. Being far and not having contact with them is hard but it is part of the process. I know they love me, and I love them, but seeing the need in these communities…well, this is why I decided to work alongside the community.

“I am going to be away from home for a while and I worry when a relative gets sick and I cannot be there, but we always get support. Solidarity from other people also helps us, it reaches everyone.

“My gratitude and admiration as a young doctor to organizations like CARE and ASONOG [Association of Non-Governmental Organizations] that support our capacities, despite how hard it is to find spaces to do this kind of work. They have trusted me, have respected me and have pushed this project forward.

“I am proud of the approach we have taken to create a visible impact. What matters here are people’s lives. I have gotten a lot of fulfilment working alongside such a committed team. We have gotten such a reward from working on this project. I feel I have learned and gained so much … and I feel thankful.”

Meet other inspiring women like Gabriela and celebrate the strength, resilience and ingenuity of EVERY woman.

Editor’s note: Story was originally published Aug. 17, 2020

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