Neurons of the Heart – the Art of Being Connected

A neuron is an excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals.  These signals between neurons occur via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. I heard the other day that there are 40,000 neurons in your heart and 100 million neurons in your gut [almost the size of a cat’s brain in your gut] – so maybe a ‘gut feeling’ is actually ‘gut thinking’?

Of late I have been ‘gut thinking’ about what a humanitarian career means for me, my family and my colleagues. I have been trying to get out of my head and check into a deeper place – it is a work in progress moving at cat brain speed.



Image from


We talk about the ‘Red Cross family’ and this is true in all its glorious manifestations. One of my non-brain reflections [finally, I find myself making sense!] is that relationships forged under the intense pressure of disaster, fused by common values can become like diamonds – strong, beautiful and precious. They transcend differences in culture, language, distance and time. The Red Cross world is built on these relationships and it is these connections accross 189 countries that are the real horsepower behind ‘mobilising the power of humanity’.

Forged out of the Canterbury earthquakes is my relationship with Jolie Wills. In a work sense Jolie is the detail to my chaos; in a personal sense she is quietly but deeply inspirational.


Jolie started as a Red Cross member/volunteer and following the Canterbury earthquakes she headed the Red Cross psychosocial recovery programme. In typical Red Cross style it quickly became a family affair and her Dad moved to Christchurch to become a volunteer and to lend a hand on the home front. Her kids also pitched in and sure have clocked up the hours packing ‘winter warmers’! This mirrors my own family where my mother does a lot to support her ‘disastrous daughter’ and so does my husband Jim, who lived in 47 degree heat in New Delhi on a Red Cross mission, and developed tinnitus from the drone of the old air conditioner while donating countless volunteer hours of editorial services.

Jolie has been awarded a Winston Churchill fellowship which came from her asking the question:“at this stage of things, in what way can I best contribute and play my part in the recovery?”  The answer has focused her energy on, ”Shining the spotlight on the people embedded and working so hard to support recovery within their communities often without adequate resources and recognition for all they do, all the while living and breathing their own recovery – this, to me, is most important.”

So, when I asked her to boil it down she frames it this way: “How do we support those people who are working so hard to support long term recovery often whilst impacted themselves”? This is a question we ask ourselves around the world every time people stand up, shake the dust off, bury their dead, erect a tarpaulin and sign up as Red Cross volunteers.

In Jolie’s words:

“How easy it is to be the person  who gathers precious gems and strings them into a necklace. When admired, due more to the beauty of the gems than any tricky craftsmanship piecing them together, deserved recognition is then falsely attributed to the jeweller than the incredible people who supplied the gems. In my journey I hope to be humble in stringing together these hard won precious gems of wisdom so generously offered up by those working in recovery. This knowledge belongs not to me but to them and I hope to be diligent, competent and trustworthy in my care and acknowledgement of the birthplace of these precious gems. Thank you for the honour – may I be found to be up to the task.”

I would like to connect you to Jolie and her work over the next few weeks. I will post snapshots of her fellowship as she transmits and receives information, forms specialised connections and looks into the heart of recovery matters with disaster affected communities in Australia, Japan, Europe and the United States. So, now the connection has been made please check in to hear from Jolie.

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