Spotlight on Dr. Joanne Liu

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I first thought about joining Médecins Sans Frontières when I was a teenager. I had come across a book about a physician working in Afghanistan with MSF called “Et la Paix dans le monde, Docteur”. It was a very inspiring read and I told myself that I would like to be this doctor one day. However it took a three-month volunteer exchange program to Mali to make it clear to me that I wanted to become a doctor and work in developing countries. From that point on, all of my career decisions were taken with the goal of working overseas and becoming a doctor for MSF.

To prepare for my work with MSF, I took my summer breaks from medical school to volunteer overseas. After my pre-med year I traveled to Chad, a country that was at war with Libya. I worked for three months in a religious community as a medical assistant, then as a medical consultant. Throughout my studies I pursued all of my medical electives overseas which took me to countries such as Haiti, Kenya, and India, and twice to the Baffin Island. I became a specialist in paediatrics, with a sub-specialty in paediatric emergency, believing it would be a medical field needed overseas. After my training I worked for a few months as a paediatrician in rural Canada before finally joining MSF.

My first mission with MSF was in 1996 in Mauritania. I was the doctor for a refugee camp of about 50,000 Touareg Malian refugees after the fall of the leader Moussa Traore. I discovered shortly after arriving that this mission would not be easy. I had to learn to practice medicine in the middle of a desert with no laboratory facilities, no electricity or running water. Patients were sick and we had limited resources to help them. Yet, when I look back at it, I believe this experience made me a better clinician by helping me trust my instincts and by learning to provide treatment on my own, with no other medical colleagues to share my concerns.

As difficult as this first mission was, I also found great inspiration from the medical staff’s commitment to their work and from the daily contact with the refugee population. I’ll never forget the time when I was treating a child who was in haemolytic crisis and in dire need of a blood transfusion. After doing a cross-match and other blood screening tests, I decided to transfuse my own blood to the child through an intra-osseous IV access, which quite fortunately, allowed the child survive.

Since Mauritania, I have been on several missions, including to Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Uganda, West Bank/Gaza, South Sudan, Eritrea, Haiti and Nigeria. These missions were punctuated with short stays in Canada to brush-up on my medical skills. In that time I also spent three years in France as an MSF Program manager, overseeing MSF missions in Central Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Asia.

I have just returned to Montreal from a mission in Sudan, in South Darfur. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur has called on MSF to organize its largest operation this year, sending over 200 expatriate volunteers, and hiring thousands of local staff. Millions of people have been forcibly displaced within Darfur, or have taken refuge in Chad. MSF is providing medical aid to a population who is malnourished and suffering from diarrhoeal and upper-respiratory tract diseases, and other illnesses, including a rare outbreak of Hepatitis E.

MSF has its share of challenges and rewards, as well as its share of frustrations and limitations. For example, a mission with MSF might involve providing basic primary health care, work which can be tedious or overwhelming depending on the needs of the population. In other missions volunteers could experience immense stress caused by extreme situations such as working in a war zone. Yet, the most important thing to remember about MSF is that the organization ultimately strives to work in the best interests of the populations it serves. MSF’s primary goal is to bring assistance and alleviate suffering for these populations, first and foremost.

MSF has given me the opportunity to visit parts of the world that I could have never otherwise visited. In my adolescence I wanted to save and change the world. Now, nine years after my first mission, I have discovered instead that the world has changed me.