“After a while, I made the decision I would not try resuscitate any babies under three pounds because, even I could bring them back to life, they wouldn’t  last long. I became very good at saying I am sorry, there is nothing I can do for your baby’s heart/tumour just fill in the blanks”.

Tanya’s presentation about her experience with Doctors without Borders (or, rather, MSF as they call themselves, for Medicins Sans Frontieres) in South Sudan was riveting and heartbreaking. Armed with a degree in Pediatrics from USC, Tanya started her career in a private practice where she would spend her days “telling 45% of the parents that no, their kids’ sniffle didn’t merit antibiotics and trying to convince the other 55% that their children did indeed need to get vaccinations”. After 18 months of this, Tanya decided a change was in order – and applied to MSF and, soon enough, she was shipped to South Sudan to replace a doctor who had gotten infected with malaria and another who just couldn’t cope.

The clinic that awaited Tanya was a large, makeshift hut, with the beds so close to each other, affording no privacy. Children on door’s death ended up being resuscitated or died in front of all the other little patients. Four months later, MSF had built an intensive care unit, so that such procedures could be carried out in private.

This is just one story of the many doctors, nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, ob-gyn’s and just regular folks who decide to take a time out from life as we know it, to provide help in any areas deemed in crisis.

MSF was started in the ’70’s as a spin-off of the Red Cross. Some French doctors felt too bound by the gag order that all Red Cross employees have to abide to, not to ever comment or speak out about the situations they encounter, and decided to start their own alternative relief programme. What they do is not dissimilar from the Red Cross, with which they often partner, although they do go to places where the Red Cross might be reluctant to go. A large part of their mission is not only to provide help and relief in the immediate aftermath of natural catastrophes, wars and medical crises, but also to let the world know what the needs are, which people are dying of hunger, if vital medications are running out. MSF will never take sides and will provide care to anyone who needs it, jailers and victims alike, no questions asked, but weapons must be checked at the door.

Over 40 years later, MSF operates in nearly 70 countries, with the largest concentrations in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia and, recently, the Middle East. I recently attended a recruitment fair because I have always supported and donated to MSF but I was interested in knowing more, and I didn’t come away disappointed. If I were a doctor, I wouldn’t hesitate to spend three months where needed, now and then – typically, their recruits are either at the beginning or the end of their careers. There are clerical and logistical opportunities as well, although not as many as medical, which require a 12 months commitment (and spoken French is a definite asset).

Tanya felt that, despite the lack of diagnostic equipment, the hundreds of patients seen every day, the heartbreak of every death, her time in Sudan and Guatemala were invaluable, from a professional and, above all, a personal point. A reminder that giving is the best way to feel fulfilled, on every level.

For more information and stories from the field check out their website


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Filed under Africa, doctors without borders

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