Patsy Mertz, the founder of the Ivory Coast Mothers and Children organization and the Patricia Nau Clinic in Braffoueby, is truly an amazing woman over 50! Patsy gave up a glamorous job in the States to join the Peace Corps—at 55! And then, forever changed and inspired by the experience, she worked tirelessly to build a medical clinic in the small, rural village that is so burdened with extreme poverty and a lack of adequate health care.
Although I spoke with Patsy on FaceTime several months ago, I believe that this is the perfect time to post our interview—the week before Thanksgiving. I, for one, am truly grateful to Patsy and other brave women like her who have taken risks in their own lives to better the lives of less fortunate women and children across the globe. I hope you will be as inspired as I am by Patsy’s story and her work.
Diane: Welcome Patsy! Or is it Pat?
Patsy: I started out as Pat, but always ended up as Patsy. At 72, I’ve surrendered. It’s Patsy.
Diane: Well, Patsy, I’d love to jump right in because there’s so much I want to talk to you about! WomanPause is a blog for women who are over 50 and rediscovering themselves. Your story is so inspirational because you have been on such an amazing rediscovery journey. What was your initial stirring, your call to action?
“I had ‘lingered in their glows’ for too long and knew that I needed to do something good—and fast.”
Patsy: Mine was actually precipitated by a series of events. I had lost both of my parents after caring for them for over a year. At the time, I had two independent sons and had been divorced for a long time. I was working for Goldman Sachs as an event planner—I planned glamorous parties. It was fun, but it just didn’t feel right after losing my parents because I saw the impact that they had made in the world.
I had ‘lingered in their glows” for too long and knew that I needed to do something good—and fast. I just happened upon an ad that read “Join the Peace Corps.” So, I called immediately.
Diane: Wow! Just like that?
Patsy: Well the call was fast, but the whole process took a year. Finally, I received an invitation to go to the Ivory Coast. People around me were in disbelief: “You haven’t even been camping before!” But as Elizabeth Warren said, “She persisted!”
Diane: Yes, she did! And so did you!
“Before Mom died, she asked me to promise her that I would one day go to Africa. I always thought that she meant on a fancy safari!”
Patsy: It was challenging. I went overseas with people in their 20s. I was 55! It was a very uncomfortable setting lacking the comforts we are used to. We received three months of training in the French language (luckily, I had majored in French in college), in safety, and in the Ivorian culture. We received information about the work we would do there, and then everyone started their two-year placements in a rural village. After living in the village for 17 months, we were all evacuated because of an attempted coup d’état. We were given the choice to either get reassigned for 5 months or go home. I asked to be reassigned to go where I was needed most.
I was offered Kenya, which was very emotional for me. Before Mom died, she asked me to promise her that I would one day go to Africa. I always thought that she meant on a fancy safari! After Peace Corps, I went to Italy and taught English for two years. When I came back to the States, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the mothers and children in the Ivory Coast. After hearing me go on and on about them, my little niece said, “What are you going to do about it, Aunt Patsy?” I answered, “I’ll start a clinic!”
Diane: Wow! Again, wow! You just made that statement and you were off?
“You make things real by saying them, speaking them.”
Patsy: You make things real by saying them, speaking them. It was now real! I propelled myself head first into the project. I knew nothing! Nothing about medicine, about non-profits and fundraising. I wrote letters to the village. They had no phones, no Internet, computers–at first it was all done by mail and telephone. Thankfully, in 2007, my son’s girlfriend at the time said that she would help make things happen. And she did.
I thought about the sadness in the village with so many funerals. Life was hard for women. I knew a woman who had her baby on the road while trying to get help; I remembered how injured she was and how devastated when the baby died. The women work with machetes in the fields, with babies on their backs, and then come home and prepare meals with a giant mortar and pestle. They gather wood, get water from the well, and figure out how they can get enough money together to send their children to school.
I was close to the children. I played with them. We did hand-washing exercises, sang songs, played with art materials they had never seen before, and I taught them English. There is an authoritarian attitude toward children in the village, but I loved them. I loved being around them. I listened. And I admired the women.
“People don’t always want to fund your dreams. They want to see something viable first.”
Diane: How long did the process take?
Patsy: It took seven years to raise the money. One small event after another. People don’t always want to fund your dreams. They want to see something viable first.
Diane: But you held on to those dreams!
Patsy: I worked some with the Ministry of Health. They didn’t always keep promises, but finally, the clinic opened in 2013, and we had our first baby born. My original idea was to set the clinic up as a women and children’s health center; now everyone is included. There’s a women’s prenatal and birth care area on one side with the consultations and eleven beds on the other side plus a pharmacy and a small laboratory.
Diane: Incredible! What would you say is the biggest challenge for the clinic?
“We take patients from all over. Many of them have been rejected at other clinics. They were told they were ‘going to die anyway.’”
Patsy: How to decide whom to serve with limited finances. There are little children who need surgery. Jules, for example, never went to a dentist. He had an infection that spread up his face and his eyeball popped out. People wait too long to get help. Kids are malnourished, many have anemia, so they have no way to fight infections and malaria. It’s now a Community Health Center and we don’t turn away anyone who can’t pay.
We take patients from all over. Many of them have been rejected at other clinics. They were told they were “going to die anyway.” Disease prevention. It’s a long process. Because of the poverty it is easier to prevent the disease than to cure it. We have two young doctors from the area on staff who went to medical school. We also have a midwife and two nurses. The state pays the base salaries of one of the nurses and the midwife. We pay the doctors and the other staff until one day hopefully the clinic will fund itself.
Diane: What heartache over there and really tough choices. You are saving lives. You seem fearless, Patsy. Did you have any fears starting out?
“After I make up my mind, what I call my ‘stupid mind’ takes over … I had anxiety. So what!”
Patsy: After I make up my mind, what I call my “stupid mind” takes over. Anguish—and questions: How can you leave the best job, with great perks, give up retirement money? I realize that those are just little voices in my head, but acknowledging that fact, doesn’t turn them off! I had anxiety. So what! Doubts come up, but what’s more important? I’ve learned to live my life how I want to, pretty much and make my own decisions. When I first got engaged, many years ago, I wanted to get out of it. But I just went along and listened to other people. I didn’t trust myself. That was a big mistake except for my two sons!
Diane: It sounds like you learned from the experience. I love how you acknowledge the voices—and that they are just that—voices. Great insight.
Patsy: Well, you must trust yourself. After that, I learned to trust myself and to know when things are not right. By the way, he was not a great husband for me but is a fantastic ex-husband and father! And grandfather to our almost 6 grandchildren.
Diane: You must know that what you have done, are doing, is exceptional! Not many of us would give up a glamorous job that provided security and go off into the unknown in one of the poorest countries on the planet—even if we did believe in the cause. And now, you’ve devoted your life to that cause. You must have had models of “rediscovery”?
“I realized that I had a legacy to my 20 nieces and nephews and to my sons. I guess I knew I had to ‘get off my duff’ and go for the stretch.”
Patsy: Lots! One of my sisters just became a published author at 70! Another sister is an epidemiologist and past President of APIC. They deal with infection control. She would take jobs in all different places. She was in Toronto for the first case of SARS. She’s also worked in Alaska, and on an Indian reservation. Another sister got her Nurse Practitioner degree at 56. One of my brothers started growing pot in Michigan later in life! One other brother took over my dad’s shop and raised it to new levels and the other brother had a successful tree care business. Entrepreneurs!
But my biggest role models were my parents who had 7 children. Dad was charismatic. He had a machine shop but worked for the economic development of Indiana. He received an honorary PhD from Purdue University. My mom and dad were always involved with fundraising for something. I saw my parents having fun doing whatever they were doing. I loved it and modeled my fundraising/life after them. Dad always told us, “Get off you duff and do it, and do it with feeling! Feel it!” I think that translates to “be in the moment”. Mom was gracious, kind, smart. I lived in their shadows and shadowed them. I loved hanging out with them and their friends.
Diane: They sound like they were wonderful people. And they raised some amazing children! Do you have any advice for women who are on the rediscovery path?
“Find other happy, interesting women … I learned to look outward to strong, upbeat women who trusted themselves.”
Patsy: Find other happy, interesting women. I used to feel small. But I learned to look outward to strong, upbeat women who trusted themselves. Learning from them as well as from my mother, I realized that I had a legacy to my 20 nieces and nephews and to my sons. I had to “get off my duff” and go for the stretch.
I had always looked for a dream job, and I’ve had some wonderful ones. I’ve worked in an art gallery, was a personal shopper at Saks, sold Cadillacs among other things. I worked as a concierge at the Ritz Carlton and other hotels in Chicago and then became an Event Planner/Concierge at Goldman. I always wanted to be passionate about work and be surrounded by passionate people. I’d say, the most important thing is to listen to yourself and to do what you enjoy doing. It’s hard to grow when you’re not doing something that’s interesting and satisfying, and you can easily develop negativity.
Diane: After all of your travels, experiences, and work abroad, what would you say is your wish for the world?
Patsy: I would like to see an end to poverty and hunger, of course. And I’d like to see women worldwide be given the dignity, equality and respect that they deserve.
Diane: Well, Patsy, you are certainly an advocate for women and children around the world. Thank you for this time. And thank you for your work.
Update from Patsy: We are working hard on disease prevention. Right now, there are orphans and vulnerable children who need to be vaccinated against meningitis, tetanus and typhoid fever. These are preventable diseases. Ivory Coast is very underserved. We need to get those kids vaccinated!
$25 will vaccinate 2 children. Our year end goal is to vaccinate as many children as we can.
Please consider making a donation to Ivory Coast Mothers and Children to support Patsy’s important work: https://ivorycoastgivingtuesday.causevox.com/
And if you order from Amazon, you can make donations with every purchase at no cost to you. Simply enter smile.amazon.com to search for Ivory Coast Mothers and Children.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please shoot me an email or leave a comment.
Wishing you and your families a wonderful Thanksgiving!
See you next Friday!