'Lipstick In Afghanistan': A Boston Nurse Goes Behind The Frontlines11:04

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Roberta Gately examining a child at a clinic in Afghanistan. (Courtesy)
Roberta Gately examining a child at a clinic in Afghanistan. (Courtesy)

When she's not caring for patients at Boston Medical Center, Roberta Gately spends her free time in conflict zones. She's channeled her real-life experiences into a debut novel, "Lipstick in Afghanistan."

In "Lipstick in Afghanistan," Elsa, a nurse from Boston, travels to Bamiyan in Afghanistan to work with an international aid organization alongside Afghan health care workers.

Why the "Lipstick?" When there's a language barrier — well, there's always makeup, Gately said.

"In Afghanistan one day...I was heading into the clinic and I had a veil on and felt a tug," Gately said. "And a woman in the full burqa was standing and she pulled her burqa back over head and pointed to her orange-tinted lips, and then pulled out her plastic tube of old lipstick that I'm sure was much loved."

Gately said she was first drawn to Afghanistan in 1986 after watching news coverage of Afghan refugees fleeing from the Soviet invasion in squalid camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The images haunter her, she said, and ultimately "it was the start really of a lifetime love affair with aid work."

Since that first aid mission, Gately has traveled to many conflict zones: the Balkans, Sudan, Iraq and, of course, Afganistan. Gately said that while she's not sure her aid work has necessarily made her a better nurse, it has made the care she provides patients "somehow broader." As she explained:

"When I meet the Lost Boys from Sudan I know their story. I've worked with them in the Sudan. When I work with Afghan regugees or Iraqis who have been tortured or people form the Balkans or other parts of Africa, often time I know their villages and I can speak to them at least a few words in their own language and I think it's my experience around the word that does that."

How exactly does an emergency room nurse at Boston Medical Center end up in war zones on the other side of the world, not just once — but again and again? We sit down with the author.Guest:


"Lipstick in Afghanistan" is available from Gallery Books.

This program aired on May 6, 2011.