YANGON — At the end of War Oo Street in Yangon’s Insein Township is a small but neatly built two-story house with a signboard in front that says “Eileen’s Family.” This is the home of Eileen Barbaro, a retired nurse who has been compared to Florence Nightingale. With its old furniture and only a few photos for decoration, the house testifies to the simple lifestyle of a woman who grew up as a child of privilege but later set out on her own and dedicated herself to serving others. Born in Kalaw, Shan State, in 1929, Ms. Barbaro has spent most of her life in Myanmar, where her father, a railway engineer of Italian descent, raised his children as members of the colonial elite. In her youth, she received an education befitting a young woman of her class, learning all the social graces and excelling in sports, especially golf and horseback riding. She was also exceptionally good at driving—in those days, a skill largely confined to the rich and their servants. But her views about her comfortable life began to change when, at the age of 17, she won a scholarship to go to university. Her father was adamantly opposed to the idea, believing that there was no need for her to further her education. “My father said that if I went to university, I would become a naughty girl,” she recalled. “He thought that because we had money, I didn’t need to study. And so I lost my chance to attend university.” This setback only strengthened Ms. Barbaro’s determination to grow beyond the confines of her upbringing. As soon as she was old enough, she left her birthplace for Yangon—this time ignoring the wishes of her father, who she never saw again before his death. There, with the help of a friend of her mother, she found work at Yangon General Hospital. [irrawaddy_gallery] After three years at the hospital, she knew that she had found her calling, and in 1950, she went to England for training as a nurse. She majored in pediatrics, and upon completion of her program of study, she received a license to practice nursing in England and Wales. At first, she considered remaining in England, where she would be able to earn more money and enjoy a better quality of life. But when her father died, her mother urged her to return to Myanmar. Still reluctant to go back, she finally returned to the country of her birth in 1955 after a senior nurse convinced her that she had a responsibility to care for her mother. Home Again As an eager young nurse, Ms. Barbaro discovered that her skills and energy were in great demand in her homeland. She soon found work again at Yangon General Hospital, where her friend Dr. Kyi Paw assigned her to the children’s ward. Before long, England was just a distant memory. “When I returned to the hospital, I found there were many things to do. I could help people a lot here,” she said. “So I buried my dream of returning to England.” One of the high points of her time at the hospital was helping to deliver Ma Nang Soe and Ma Nang San, twin sisters who were born joined at the chest. But the constant struggle to provide adequate care for her young patients prompted her and her colleagues to push for the creation of a hospital dedicated to treating children. Their efforts were greatly helped when they won the support of former nurse Daw Khin May Than, wife of then dictator Gen. Ne Win, who seized power in 1962. The following year, Yangon Children’s Hospital was established at its current location on Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street in Dagon Township, but the current main building, built with Canadian aid, did not open until 1978. Not satisfied with this accomplishment, Ms. Barbaro next set her sights on establishing an institution for training nurses. This finally happened in 1986 with the creation of the Yangon Institute of Nursing (upgraded to the University of Nursing, Yangon, in 1991) with the support of the World Health Organization. Despite her service to the country, however, Ms. Barbaro was not spared the depredations of the ruling military regime. Three European-style homes that her father built in Kalaw were taken from her family to be used as part of the Defense Services Command and General Staff College. She never received any compensation for this loss, even after one of the houses was sold to a businessman by a corrupt military commander. She speaks of this now without bitterness, but it comes as no surprise to learn that she is a strong supporter of opposition leader and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was a close personal friend. “I believe that only she can significantly improve our healthcare system,” she said of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who she knew during her days in England. “With her involvement, we could get the support we need.” As one practical step toward improving the quality of healthcare, Ms. Barbaro—who has served as the president at the Myanmar Nurses’ Association since her retirement in 1989—suggested drawing on the experience of nurses who are no longer active in the profession. “Retired nurses have skills acquired over long years of service that could be used to help with the care of the disabled or long-suffering patients. This would benefit both the patients and the nurses, many of whom struggle financially after they retire,” she said. International Recognition One of the pictures hanging on the wall of Ms. Barbaro’s Yangon home is a photo of her accepting the Princess Srinagarindra Award, given in honor of her lifelong service to the advancement of the nursing profession. This Thai award—named after Princess Srinagarindra Mahidol, a former nurse and the mother of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and given to Ms. Barbaro in 2012—marked a growing recognition of her efforts, and of the immense needs of Myanmar’s healthcare system. Despite the work of dedicated professionals like Ms. Barbaro, healthcare in this country declined steadily under the former junta, which formally ended nearly 50 years of military rule in 2011 with the creation of the current quasi-civilian government. Over the years, countless Myanmar citizens, both rich and poor, have been forced to seek medical treatment in neighboring countries. The famous Mae Tao Clinic, in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, has for more than two decades provided essential services to thousands of refugees and others without the means to pay for treatment, while the world-class hospitals of Bangkok and Singapore have catered to those with money. To meet needs inside the country, Ms. Barbaro and others like her often had to think beyond the limits of the government-run healthcare system. Some of her initiatives, such as a home-based nursing care program that she started with support from the international NGO World Vision, have won special attention. “This home-based nursing care system is kind of new, so the program is known to Thailand through World Vision. That’s why they honored me,” she said. But her modest acceptance of this honor, like the modesty of her home, belies both her background and a lifetime of accomplishment that grew from a longing for independence and developed into a passionate desire to serve her chosen profession and her country.
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