Spotlight on Dr. Leslie Shanks

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Dr. Shanks is the president of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Canadian chapter, and a long-time volunteer with the organization. When not working in the field with MSF, Dr. Shanks works in an inner city clinic in downtown Toronto as a family doctor. She has just recently returned from a mission to Sudan where she was providing care to individuals affected by more than 20 years of on-going war.

Dr. Shanks’ career as a doctor began in Canada’s North, working with aboriginal people who do not have access to health care. Her goal in entering medicine was to work overseas, and in 1994 she decided to apply to MSF. She first heard of MSF through the media and upon learning more, she realised that the agency’s mission to deliver independent medical humanitarian aid matched her own ideals. Her first mission was to the former Yugoslavia, where she worked with a team to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics cut off from assistance by the war. Several months after arriving, another crisis broke out in Zaire in sub-Saharan Africa, which had been triggered by the end of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. A flood of refugees poured over the border from Rwanda to Zaire, and within days thousands were afflicted with cholera. Because cholera kills quickly, MSF immediately called for more volunteers to reinforce the teams in the field. Dr. Shanks was one of those volunteers. She spent the next month fighting three different diseases, including the cholera epidemic, an outbreak of dysentery and an epidemic of meningitis.

Since that first mission in 1994, Dr. Shanks spent several more years working in Zaire, (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Dr. Shanks remembers the experience best by the inspiring resilience of the Congolese, despite the daily work challenges and incredible odds they faced. “There is quite simply a refusal to give up and give in. In situations where I was sorely tempted to despair, my Congolese colleagues would inspire me to keep going,” says Shanks. These are the missions that have made Dr. Shanks feel like she gained more from working with MSF than she gave to the people she helped.

Dr. Shanks recognizes that her missions with MSF and her work in Canada’s north have helped her in her role as a family doctor in Canada. She especially welcomes the experience gained from handling medical problems in settings where there is no access to the specialized diagnostic methods that many Canadian doctors are accustomed to work with. Dr. Shanks also realizes that her experiences working in cross-cultural settings in other parts of the world have developed her understanding of the multicultural environments she works in, whether in Nunavut, or in Toronto with new Canadians.

In mid-May 2004, Dr. Shanks returned home from a one-month mission to Sudan, where she helped set up a tuberculosis (TB) project. With an on-going conflict in Sudan, MSF has intervened to set up emergency camps to take care of the refugees in the western state of Darfur. Since last December, 1,000,000 people have been displaced in Darfur, fleeing the Janjaweed (“Devils on Horseback”) rebels who kill the local farmers and burn their villages. More than 130,000 refugees have crossed over from Sudan to neighbouring Chad. In South Sudan it is estimated that as many as for out of five people are infected with TB and that the death rate is extremely high.

MSF is fortunate to have volunteers like Dr. Shanks to help people around the world who do not have access to proper health care. MSF is always looking for more doctors and nurses to volunteer on its many projects. For more information on volunteering with MSF, please contact Simona Powell at 416-642-3458, or visit the website at www.msf.ca.