May 01, 2013
By Sue Cavanaugh

Off the beaten track

John Pringle had his first exposure to epidemiology as a field worker with MSF

Courtesy of John PringlePringle conducted active case finding surveillance of meningitis outbreaks on a mission with MSF in Sokoto State, Nigeria, in 2006.

It was a shigellosis outbreak in Eritrea that got John Pringle thinking about branching out into new fields.

Pringle, an RN who had graduated a few years before from McMaster University’s BScN program, was on a mission in the war-torn African nation with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). One of his jobs at a refugee camp was to collect stool samples from people who were suffering from bloody diarrhea so the team could confirm what disease they were dealing with. “It was sweltering hot and everybody was quite sick — I was often fighting stomach problems myself,” he recalls. “But I learned the importance of disease surveillance and of having a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on in the community.”

When the mission was over, Pringle returned to Canada to do a master’s degree in community health and epidemiology at Queen’s University. Although he admits that he struggled with the statistical portions of the coursework, his interest in global health kept him motivated. “It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers and confidence intervals and odds ratios, but what’s really important is what they mean, how they matter and what’s done with them. When the problems are inequality and social injustice, the answers aren’t going to come through a complicated statistical algorithm.”

Growing up in Burlington, just west of Toronto, Pringle knew from a young age that he wanted to escape his sheltered life and see the world. After graduating from high school, he spent a year hitchhiking around Europe and northern Africa, working in cafés or unloading trucks to get by. He first considered the idea of becoming a nurse after he took a job as a live-in caregiver for a deaf and blind man in Seville, Spain. “It was winter and I wanted to stay there because it was warm,” he says. “The job gave me room and board and a little pocket money. They didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish.” As time went on, Pringle learned the language and discovered that he liked taking care of people.

Pringle also visited Morocco, an experience that he says opened his eyes to what real poverty is and how hard life is for people who live on the edges of society. It cemented his desire to find a meaningful way to contribute. “Nursing made sense,” he explains. “Its feminist roots appealed to me, as did the potential for working outside the western medical model.”

Pringle almost couldn’t believe it when he was accepted into McMaster. “My marks in high school weren’t great, so I certainly wasn’t a typical candidate,” he says. “Even on my first day, I was terrified that someone was going to come up to me and say ‘Sorry, John, there’s been a mistake.’” By this point, he was in his mid-20s, a bit older than most of his classmates, and he was worried that he might not fit in. “I was relieved to find that the problem-based learning approach fit with my life experience and that discussion and critical thinking were encouraged.”

His grand plan was to start working for MSF once he graduated. When he showed up with his backpack at the Toronto offices he was told that missions are not learning environments and that he needed some real experience under his belt. Pringle worked for a year and a half in nursing stations in northern Manitoba, a challenging environment that prepared him for the demands of international work. He went back to MSF, and they agreed to take him on. His first mission was to Eritrea, a country he had never heard of, where he helped establish prenatal and immunization clinics in a camp of 12,000 refugees.

He’s followed that up with two missions to Nigeria, investigating meningitis outbreaks and, as a member of an emergency response team, dealing with a lead poisoning disaster that caused the deaths of hundreds of children. The long-term prognosis for the thousands of others who are poisoned is poor, he says, and much more could be achieved through a coordinated international response. He has written and published on the global health ethics perspective of this catastrophe and continues to work with MSF colleagues on lobbying for help for these populations.

In between missions, Pringle has devoted his energies to completing a PhD in public health and bioethics, with occasional teaching and lecturing, all with a focus on global health and humanitarianism.

What’s next for him? “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure,” he laughs. “I love to teach, I love research and I love working in humanitarian aid. I’m hoping to find a career that combines all my interests.” But no matter what the future brings, Pringle says he will always see himself “first and foremost as a nurse. Epidemiology is a terrific skill set I can bring to nursing.”

10 questions with John Pringle

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I would speak several languages fluently

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I am an amateur banjo player

“If I had more free time, I would….”
Host vegan dinner parties

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
The Festival au Désert in Mali

What is your biggest regret?
Not paying attention in French class

What was the last good book you read?
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
Aid workers

What do you like most about being a nurse?
The solidarity

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I would remove all borders

Sue Cavanaugh is a freelance writer in Ottawa.
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