(photo by Sarah Whiting)

There was a distinct turning point when Cheryl 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.

In 1985, Robertson was driving down a rutted road, trying to get a dying pregnant woman to a hospital in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Howling in agony, the woman desperately needed a cesarean section to save her and the baby.

“Move, move, move, a woman is dying here!” screamed Robertson, honking the horn at the drivers of two trucks that were blocking the road. 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 cigarette and lunch break, the men slowly got into their trucks and made way for the women 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?”

Later, while mulling over what had happened after the woman died at the hospital, Robertson realized that not caring whether women live or die isn’t okay in anybody’s culture.

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 chronic violence often breeds coarseness, self-preservation and cruelty.”

Faith in people

Straight talking and five feet tall with a knack for coordinating mismatched jewelry with jumpers worn over leggings, Robertson, now 62, looks more like an artist than a nurse researcher. Since she first lived in Uganda 30 years ago, she’s worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, Bosnia and elsewhere in the world.

Prior to working at the University, Robertson served as director of international programs at the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture. More than 30 years of nursing 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 also informs her teaching.

Robertson insists she is not fearless. Rather, she says, what enables her to go places that others fear is her faith that most people are good and that the odds are in her favor.

“Be a nurse for $100”

Born in Los Angeles, Robertson could see Disneyland’s Matterhorn bobsled ride from her front yard. That childhood sight, she figures, forever colored her worldview. “I just always think it’s all gonna be okay,” she says. “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.”

Robertson 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 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 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 University, 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 fateful first trip to Uganda.

“The Dork Factor”

In 2014, the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) invited her to join a team of health professionals to help open a new Ebola treatment center in 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.”

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. “I was very proud to be on the ARC team.”

Some of the best opportunities for learning are often accidental, says Robertson. “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 a few years, Robertson was the University’s liaison to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of all the difficult places in the world Robertson has worked, she says the DRC was the hardest. Rich in timber, diamonds, and minerals, the country’s people are among the world’s poorest. 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.

Robertson sees hope. She notes that in the last 30 years Uganda has successfully rebuilt from conditions similar to those in DRC. She plans to return there to continue her earlier work with the RESPOND Project (Responding to the Need for Family Planning). For inspiration, she looks to her students from the University and from the African network universities with whom she has been working for the last several years.

Two East African women will work with her in April to analyze data collected in Kenya about the human experience of violence and loss as resources disappear, while working with a larger team to develop next steps in this research. The team recently completed data collection about the socioeconomic and cultural impacts on a remote Ugandan community seven years after an Ebola outbreak. They are looking for how these communities find resilience and move forward.

Says Robertson, “We are 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.”

Editor’s Note: This story is an excerpt from the University of Minnesota Alumni magazine. Used with permission.