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The world is their emergency room: On the front lines of humanitarian aid

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In 1985, at the age of 10 years old, I saw my first picture of a malnourished child. It was a child from Ethiopia during the famine. The image shattered my reality, and made me realize there was a lot going on in the world that I didn’t know about. The image stayed in my mind, and drove me to become a nurse, and to eventually work for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Today I’m heading home from Cameroon, having completed my 6th mission with MSF.

Ever since my first mission in 2009, the return home has always been a time for reflection. A time to think of how privileged I am to work for MSF, and to have the life that I do. It is also a time to reflect on the stories and the people I met during the mission.

When I first arrived in Cameroon, 4 months ago, I did a tour of the 120 bed MSF malnutrition treatment hospital. The hospital was full and the first person I saw was a completely emaciated, motionless older boy lying outside on a mattress. His name was Awaloo, and I thought he was dead. Thankfully he was not.

Awaloo is a 12 year old refugee from Central African Republic (CAR). When he arrived at the hospital he was unconscious and severely malnourished. He tested positive for HIV and was started on ARVs, but he didn’t start to get better right away. For months his poor little body was wracked by infection after infection.

Eventually the infections subsided, and Awaloo began to gain weight. First he was able to sit up, and soon he was even able to hold his own cup of therapeutic milk. And he smiled practically all of the time, as though he knew a special secret.


Four months after his admission into the hospital, Awaloo is getting ready to go home. He is now a skinny 12 year old boy, who walks around the hospital with a big smile on his face – a far cry from the boy I thought was dead when I first visited the hospital four months ago. He has become a very beloved patient in the hospital, with the staff sharing a sense of pride that they played a part in the miracle of Awaloo being alive and healthy.

And as I think about going home and my future, I also think about Awaloo going home and his future. Awaloo’s family lives in a village on the border of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. The village houses thousands of refugees who fled to Cameroon seeking safety from the widespread slaughtering of muslims in CAR.

While the village is relatively safe, there are constant reminders of the menace that lurks on the other side of the border. One night, a refugee crossed over the border into CAR, in search of better pasture for his goats. He was beheaded, and the next day the rebels responsible for the killing paraded around Awaloo’s village, proudly carrying the head. When I think of how hard Awaloo has worked over the past four months to be alive, it makes me sick to think how his life, or the life of others, could be so quickly, brutally and senselessly taken away.

Garoua-Boulai District Hospital, MSF tent. MSF nurse Gervais changes the bandages of a patient transferred from the MSF hospital in BouarAnd it is not only Awaloo’s physical safety that will be a concern once he returns home. MSF runs a health centre in his village, and for the next few months we can be sure he will receive his monthly supply of ARVs. But once MSF leaves, there is no guarantee that the government’s HIV program will be able to continue supplying the drugs. And without the drugs, Awaloo will die.

Later this month, after some intense rest, I will return to work as a home care nurse in the Yukon. Since I began working for MSF, my appreciation for the health care system in Canada has grown exponentially. I know that there are problems with the system, but I also see the strengths. Every time I return to work in Canada, I bask in the multi-disciplinary collaboration, in the access to resources and in the social safety net that more or less ensures access to healthcare to our clients. I think of Awaloo, and all of the other people I have met over the years. I think how different their lives would be if they had access to the type of health care we have in Canada.


When I began working with MSF in 2009, I had no idea what awaited me. Since that time, not only have I been provided with high quality training opportunities (MSF supported me in obtaining my Masters of Public Health), I have also become part of the MSF community. I am returning home exhausted, but I know that there is a community waiting to support me.

Since I began working with MSF, I have been provided with incredible professional and personal opportunities. As a nurse with MSF my role is much broader than it would be ever in Canada – with MSF, nurses can be responsible for training staff, managing pharmacies, recruiting and scheduling staff, implementing programs, collecting and analyzing program statistics etc. Working with MSF I have met amazingly resilient people, with stories that would seem unfathomable to most. And, I have never left a mission without an overwhelming gratitude for the life I was born in to, and all of the privileges that I have.

Tonight as I prepare to return home to the Yukon wilderness, I think of the differences in what awaits me and what awaits Awaloo in our journeys home, and I am filled with both gratitude and painful sadness. I will never cease to be in wonder of how I had the luck and privilege to be born into this life.


MSF 4Working for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders

More than 30,000 people working for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) provide medical aid in close to 70 countries around the world. Most of the organization’s staff is hired locally. From Canada, MSF sends about 240 fieldworkers each year.

MSF recruits both medical and non-medical staff to work in its projects. Medical fieldworkers include physicians, surgeons, nurses, midwives, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and laboratory specialists.

A typical MSF mission lasts six to 12 months, though a field project may be of shorter duration for emergencies or for needs driven by particular circumstances.

Professional development

MSF is committed to the ongoing professional development of its field workers. It provides them with access to various types of training that build the skills and knowledge required to fulfill its mandate. Training programs can range from language training, to sophisticated medical treatments and protocols, to management and leadership best practices, and a host of other possibilities relevant to the medical and professional support streams.

Salary and Benefits

MSF salaries are set so as to reflect the humanitarian spirit of volunteerism while recognizing the high level of professional expertise provided by field staff. Monthly gross salary is approximately $1,907, with subsequent increases based on expertise and experience. Canadians working in the field with MSF receive a Canadian contract in which all required taxes and contributions are deducted. Fieldworkers receive a number of benefits such as pre-departure training, round-trip transportation, accommodation and daily per diem in the field, paid vacation, medical insurance and psychological support after returning to Canada.

More information about working for MSF and how to apply can be found on MSF Canada’s website: www.msf.ca

The organization also holds regular recruitment information events around Canada and organizes recruitment webinars.

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