CAMP HUMPHREYS, Republic of Korea – Rachael Consoli stepped out to stretch her legs on the streets of South Sudan. She took a deep breath and placed one foot on the street. After spending two weeks inside a convent delivering babies with nuns, this walk was needed. Her feet, with minds of their own, led her to a bridge. Before she could step foot on the bridge a young man stopped her in her tracks.
“You cannot go any further,” he said. “You’re a spy.”
She turned around and suddenly, she felt the cold press of steel against her head.
“Now you Stop.”
Consoli is an obstetric and gynecological surgeon at the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, Brian D. Allgood Army Community Hospital. She said the love of caring for other people stemmed from being the oldest of eight children. Consoli said oftentimes her mother would leave her in charge of her younger sister and brothers while she needed to run an errand. Also, her dad was a surgeon and would take the children to the clinic with him and allow them to distribute prescription medication to patients.
“I felt thrilled when my dad asked us to help at the clinic,” said Consoli. “It was an honor to serve, and it was an honor to help human beings be better with their health. I know being the oldest, and my dad allowing us to help, led me to where I am now.”
As a fourth grader Consoli was tasked to write her autobiography for class and said even then she knew she would travel the world as a physician and OB-GYN delivering babies. At 9-years old, Consoli’s plan began with helping the lepers in Molokai, and island in Hawaii, since it was the only exotic place she knew. As Consoli grew older, her passion to heal and serve humanity never died. She graduated medical school in 1995 followed by participation two fellowships: one year in robotics and minimal invasive gynecological surgery and two years in pediatric and adolescence gynecology surgery. She also completed a master’s degree in public health.
“My pediatric and adolescence gynecology surgery fellowship focused on how to do reconstructive surgery on little girls born without a vagina or who are born with some abnormities in their genital or pelvic area,” said Consoli. “We were charged with the mission to take care of them. We also learned how to work with 16-year-olds who haven’t started their cycles. We can see what’s going on with her, if she needs surgery to fix the problem, or if we need to administer her hormones.”
Once Consoli finished more than a decade of higher learning, she joined the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist which creates guidelines for health care professionals and educational material for patients, provides career support, facilitates programs to improve women’s health, and advocate for members and patients. She then started to travel the globe as a volunteer locum (a substitute for medical staff members in hospitals, clinics, or practices when they are ill or on leave). Being a locum opened doors for her to deliver babies and create Safe Motherhood Programs, a program providing expectant mothers with ultra-sounds, monthly check-ups, and information on birthing procedures. The program was established in places where maternal mortality rates were the highest. She has delivered a baby on every continent except Antarctica, but only because they do not allow pregnant women there. She jokingly said, she could not go there unless she snuck a pregnant woman in.
Consoli has traveled internationally to places including: Uganda, Syria, Guam, China and Barrow Alaska working amongst the population and training up practitioners and mid-wives on how to successfully do a caesarean section, building Pap smear programs and decreasing maternal mortality rates. She said her admiration for the doctors and nurses grew as she watched them work 15-to-16-hour days, with smiles on their faces, as they saved lives and brought lives into the world.
Answering the call
Consoli said she was pleased with how well her career lined up to the dream she had as a fourth grader. However, there was still one missing ingredient, a destination that would put the icing on the birthing cake: South Sudan. Consoli said she has wanted to live to South Sudan since she was 1 year old, so when she got the call from the Catholic Medical Mission Board saying they needed an OB-GYN, the only thing she could say was, “yes.”
“I was the only physician for hundreds of thousands of people, except for a practitioner from Uganda, who took care of HIV adults,” said Consoli. “For seven months we heard rumors that the national security (called the N security) coming to patrol the streets. Soon everyone started to assume the rumors were just that: rumors, spread to keep kids from misbehaving and men from getting drunk and unruly. “
One-day when Consoli was in her clinic working with pregnant women, she went into a room to retrieve a blood pressure cuff and when she came out everyone disappeared.
“How did 50 pregnant women escape so fast?” a baffled Consoli asked.
She looked around the room still unable to find her patients, then she saw her mid-wife run towards her mouthing, “hey, hey doctor,” and signaling for her to get down. As the midwife got closer, Consoli heard her say, “the n security is for real.” Consoli said she heard “boom, boom” and shortly after “ping ping,” like bombs were going off and shots were being fired.
Consoli couldn’t believe the attack was happening. The frightened mid-wife asked if there was a place to go because the Soldiers were fighting inside of their compound. As if saved by grace, Consoli saw a Catholic priest standing in the doorway of the clinic reaching out to them, ready to take the women to a safer place. Taking the priest’s lead, the women followed him to his church. There were people running all in a panic and the women ended up between bushes hiding under a tarp as they waited for help to arrive. For two weeks they hid, and during that time a little boy snuck out from under the tarp and brought back mangoes and bananas so the women wouldn’t starve.
When the tarp was finally lifted, the sun shone through, revealing United Nations workers coming to the rescue. Everyone put on a bullet-proof vest, loaded into a tank, and were taken to another, safer, village greeted by nuns.
“The nuns said, 'come work with us doctor and we’ll take care of you,'” said Consoli.
Grateful for the haven, Consoli stayed and worked with the nuns. In the weeks she was there, Consoli stayed inside the convent working. The one day she decided it was time to go out and stretch her legs.
It was after church one Sunday when Consoli stepped out to stretch her legs on the street of South Sudan. She took a deep breath and placed one foot outside of the convent. Her feet, with minds of their own, led her to the bridge. Before she could take a step, an 18-year-old boy appeared in front of her.
“You cannot go any further,” he said. “You’re a spy.”
The bridge was forbidden territory but lacked any signage. She tried to explain she was a doctor. When that didn’t work, she said he was not an officer and had no authority to detain her. As she turned around to go back to the village, saw the boy, reach behind the tree. Her body froze and, as if in slow motion, he pulled the out a machine gun and pointed it straight at her head.
“Now you stop,” said the rebel boy. The boy was a member of the Arrow Boys. The Arrow Boys were an ad-hoc militia group put together as self-defense against another violent group of militants, the Lord's Resistance Army. Their name derived from their weapon of choice - arrows dipped in poison.
With every intention to staying alive, Consoli did what she was requested of her. A man with a motorcycle approached and she was told to get on the back of the bike. Unwillingly, she threw her leg over and sat down on the seat. Forty-five minutes transformed the land as they headed toward the Congo jungle. She'd heard stories of women being taken to the Congo and raped and the uncontrollable beating of her heart pulsated under her fingertips.
The motorcycle reached its destination, the Rebel Boys’ compound, and Consoli said she noticed there were about 75 men, and no women present. The male to female ratio made her even more unsure of what her outcome would be.
Darkness began to fall and Consoli tried to find ways to escape and get back to the convent. She told them about how she saved the life of their leader’s pregnant wife.
“I took care of the leader of the Arrow Boys,” pleaded Consoli. “I took care of his wife when the baby was dying. I did a c-section. Now, she and her baby are alive."
"They didn’t know what to do with me saving the life of the wife of their leader," she said.
One of the Arrow Boys finally relented and let her call the bishop of the convent who proceeded to tell the rebels that she was a nun and an American, so she was not to be touched. Consoli played along and mentioned the members of the embassy would be wondering where she was if she was not back by night. She was set free on a promise: she would ask the embassy leader to provide arms for the rebellion.
“The bishop paid for my release, I was worth $200 dollars,” laughed Consoli. “I was there a whole 12 hours and it was so stressful. When I look back on it now, it seems like a dream.”
She spoke to the ambassador at the hotel and made sure she kept her promise to ask for arms. She said he responded with a wink and said, “dually noted.” Even with the incident Consoli said she would return to South Sudan because she loves it there and the women fill her heart with much joy.
Never stop dreaming
Today Consoli serves at Camp Humphreys as an OB-GYN at BDAACH on a three-year contract with the Defense Health Agency. The opportunity was presented to her when she applied to “Heroes to our Heroes” in the Journal of America Medical Association. She was offered Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea and chose Korea because her sister is a teacher at Osan Air Base. This is the first time for her to work with service members and she is excited.
Consoli’s fourth-grade dream became her reality and because she kept her eyes on being a servant to other, doors have swung wide open for her to continue to heal on a global scale. She can still be found delivering babies, this time for Soldiers, spouses and civilians, and she can still be found wearing a smile on her face as she does it.
“Go into the world and have courage,” said Consoli. “Be kind to each other and fulfill your dreams. If you have a dream to do something, then work hard to bring it to fruition. At the end of the day when you are fulfilled as a human being everything else makes sense. Be open minded because you never know what the next person is going through in their life. It has my privilege and honor to be here with the military families. I am not a hero, but I do believe I have had the opportunity to serve and work alongside some. I love you all so much.”