My personal experience with Doctors Without Borders, a.k.a. Médecins Sans Frontières

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When I was a child I remember seeing the images of the Ethiopia famine on television. Ever since then, I knew that I needed to assist, to witness, to give something of myself, and to be a citizen of the world. I realized I wanted to work with Médecins Sans Frontires, when I first read about the organization in a pamphlet MSF had published in 1994 following the genocide in Rwanda. I studied nursing and worked in a number of clinical areas before finally joining MSF in 2002.

On my first mission to Somalia, it didn’t take me long to realize that this experience would be truly challenging. Somalia has been wracked with civil war since 1991, when most of its infrastructure was destroyed. Lawlessness and disorder soon ensued, while tribal warfare gained momentum. I was not used to being around citizens with guns, to work in the absence of a government, of laws, or hospitals. Yet, Somalia is a beautiful country: people are mesmerizing, and their resilience and endurance were forever a motivating factor for myself and my MSF team. We practiced ‘bush medicines’, which translated to providing the best possible treatment for patients with the least possible resources. I think we performed miracles, or certainly were witness to a few. We were doing surgeries inside a tent in the middle of nowhere, without oxygen, without monitors or high-tech equipment, and yet, despite the limited resources, we still managed to save lives.

In late November last year (2004), I came home from a 3 months mission to Darfur, in West Sudan. This was my first experience working in a refugee camp. This western region of Sudan is also currently facing a crisis, with the civilian population targeted by rebel groups. On a daily basis, we witnessed the aftermath of horror and situations which deeply affected our team. Despite our best efforts, it was frustrating to realize that even the most basic medical treatment remained inaccessible for parts of the population. And yet, I was amazed by the warmth and openness of the population. Children were especially curious and friendly. Every day, I would make a point of visiting and greeting everyone in the camp. As I walked around, children would grab onto some part of me, my arms, my hands or my shirt. One day, I sat down in the shade of an old building to rest after a long walk. On my camp tours, I always carried a bag which contained an MSF radio, my passport, the project mission statement and stethoscope. After a few minutes, I felt something pull on my bag. When I looked over, I was amazed to see a young boy, about 8 or 9 years old, sneak a small bag of peanuts into my bag, as a secret present. I was overwhelmed that in a place where people have nothing and are stripped of their most basic resources, this small boy was trying to offer me a gift.

I’ve learned in my missions with MSF to be appreciative of what we have in Canada. On a professional basis, learning about tropical disease has helped my work in emergency. With people traveling now more than ever, knowledge about diseases endemic in other parts of the world has proved to be invaluable. Working with MSF also requires an ability to adapt to any situation that arises, as there will always be something new to understand. Your knowledge will be challenged and pushed to its limits.

I find it very hard to see children dying from totally preventable diseases and people without access to clean water to drink, to bathe or to cook with, or without shelter. I believe that everyone has a right to healthcare. I believe that a person’s dignity if nothing else, even in the face of death, is vital. That’s what keeps me going: the people MSF helps, the people we work with, and the work we do to try to alleviate the suffering in the world.