Saving lives and alleviating suffering with Médecins Sans Frontières

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The devastating  typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Decades-long war in the Congo.  Southeast Asia’s disastrous Tsunami. Kenya’s vast refugee camps. Haiti’s cholera epidemic. HIV and TB devastating southern Africa. Such calamities are in the news. And they have perhaps been on your mind. What can you personally do to reduce such large-scale human suffering? How can getting involved in humanitarian medical assistance change your career and life?

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) deploys qualified Canadian health care professionals to provide medical assistance to victims of conflict, disaster, disease outbreak and health care exclusion around the world. As a Canadian emergency physician, MSF is the toughest job I have ever loved.

I was inspired to join after learning of MSF’s efficient and effective action in the world’s most difficult places to live and work. These include eastern Chad where I worked in 2013 while taking leave from my usual job in Toronto. The 45-degree weather, distance from my fiancé and workload in Chad was difficult, but I loved my local colleagues and believed in our efforts to provide aid to the rural poor.

I joined MSF because I was struck by the motivation of Canadians like Dr. James Orbinski (who accepted the 1999 Nobel Prize on behalf of MSF) to bear witness of the plight of our patients and advocate for human survival, one patient at a time. The dual role of providing bedside medical care and speaking out about what we encounter is central to MSF’s mission.

For the past 43 years of MSF’s existence, nurses, surgeons, doctors, midwives, psychologists, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, anesthetists, and epidemiologists have given assistance to populations in danger regardless of race, religion, gender or political affiliation. Crucial to our work are non-medical professionals such as team coordinators and logisticians. These experts allow MSF medical staff to focus on patient care.

While many missions are planned weeks in advance, the call to action can occur quickly for large-scale emergencies such as the Philippines’ typhoon Haiyan. Canadian nurse Martine Bouchard was called by MSF on November 12th and left to the field the same night. In Martine’s blog she speaks about how much she has learned during her time in the field about courage, resilience, and strength – by the Filipino population itself.

While Canadian medical professionals give their passion, solidarity and skills in many of the more than 70 countries around the world MSF is working in, they receive much in return. We learn from our patients about hope in the face of great uncertainty, dignity in the midst of losing everything, and perseverance in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges. These experiences are lived in small villages, massive refugee camps and dilapidated hospitals which we refurbish. Our work often lies deep in the jungle, in urban war-zones and at isolated, insecure military front-lines.  There is usually no running water and no modern conveniences where we work.

Those aiming to work with MSF should have experience being outside their normal comfort-zone. As a professional and as a person, working with MSF will change your life. You will gain a deep appreciation of the reality faced by the world’s poor, forgotten and mired in crisis.

Canadians choose to work for MSF because they realize they can make a difference in the lives of their fellow humans facing immeasurable suffering in places like war-torn Syria, malaria-ridden Central African Republic and Sub-Saharan Africa where malnutrition kills thousands of children each year.

Our more than 30,000 staff – the majority of who are locally hired- realize that the needs of their families are also the needs of all families. These include medicine when they are sick, security for their loved ones, clean water to drink, enough food to eat and a roof over their head. The beneficiaries MSF serves often do not have any of these basic necessities. To address this reality, last year we treated about 276,000 children for malnutrition, performed 8.3 million ambulatory consultations, performed 78,000 surgeries, treated 1.6 million persons for malaria, 284,000 patients for HIV with antiretrovirals, and assisted 185,000 births. MSF provides shelter, water, pots and pans, food, vaccinations and blankets when needed.

Of central importance, MSF aid workers recognize the humanity in all persons. They believe that solidarity with those suffering is achieved by living and working side by side with beneficiaries in their affected community and not from a far-flung metropolitan city.

Our staff choose to work with MSF because our non-governmental organization is independent – both financially and politically. Of the 944 million Euros we spend annually to aid those in crisis, 90 per cent of our funds come from private individual donors and not from institutions or governments.

Our neutrality is also our strength.

Not choosing sides in a conflict and providing care based on need allows us to often work on both sides of an armed conflict. When I worked in the Central African Republic, I recall transferring by road a woman with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy through the night across government and rebel front lines. Our medical legitimacy and record of serving all those in need were our “helmets” and “bullet-proof vests.” Armed actors on both sides of the front-line let us pass unharmed.

As a doctor, my career in Canada has been enriched during my MSF missions. I remember learning how to perform a lumbar puncture with a child sitting upright from a nurse in Burundi – a more successful method than the patient lying down as I had learned in Canada. I have also learned how to innovate based on the local resources available. Nurses in eastern Congo taught me how to keep insulin cool by creating a village-based “refrigerator” by placing one pot in another pot separated by moist sand and then buried in the ground.

Working with MSF has exposed me to medical conditions I had only read about in textbooks. Sadly, I have seen many diseases in their advanced end-stage, owing to the lack of access to healthcare. Yet, as a doctor, there is no shortage of meaningful work and our patients are universally grateful. Utilizing accepted protocols and essential drugs, it is not difficult to save many lives and alleviate much suffering. As a doctor and as a person, this is deeply rewarding. Even when a patient is lost, our patient’s families are extremely grateful we tried. I remember the mother of a child who died under my care. She could not thank me enough for trying. She said no one else would even touch her child.

My MSF experience has made me grateful for our life and resources in Canada. Working mostly in central Africa, my teams and I had curfews and many necessarily strict security rules. I have often longed for the freedom we as Canadians are accustomed to enjoying – such as taking a walk at night in the cool air. Although MSF has excellent medical and material resources needed in order to carry-out life-saving work, there are limitations to what we can do. Hemodialysis, intensive care, advanced surgical procedures and other resources are often impossible in the locations where MSF works. I remember seeing a man dying from renal failure in Congo with a physical finding called “uremic frost” – like a fine white dust – covering his entire body. These situations I have not seen in Canada, and make me grateful for what our Canadian health care system can provide our population.

Canadians join MSF to save lives and alleviate suffering in acute and chronic crises. Some of these emergencies can languish for decades and be largely forgotten by the rest of the world. Some contexts where we work may also be risky for the field worker. My colleagues in Congo performing mobile clinics were sometimes stopped by armed rebels. In two instances, they suffered non-life-threatening injuries including a gunshot injury to the foot and being punched in the face and pulled out of a car window by the hair. These were isolated circumstances but highlight the security risks of working overseas and the need for careful security precautions – which MSF takes seriously. Risks to fieldworkers also include illnesses brought about by the basic living conditions in the field. We ensure all field workers are in good medical condition and are vaccinated, and we have robust plans in place to care for staff if they fall ill. Bearing in mind the risks of working overseas, MSF staff choose to go to the field because they realize the perils faced by the population living there – is far greater than the risks faced by the foreign aid worker.

Working for MSF can be the right choice for qualified Canadian medical professionals looking to make a tangible difference to patients living in danger and crisis. We seek those who are outstanding team players, flexible and passionate about aiding those in need. We seek Canadians who can bear witness to the situation of their patients and advocate for their needs when they return to their home society. “Bon courage” as we say in the field if you choose this challenging and rewarding endeavor.

For more information about working for MSF and recruitment events around Canada please visit: www.msf.ca

 

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