Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is a huge international non-profit organization committed to providing health care to those who need it most. This year, some 30,000 healthcare and other volunteers will provide medical aid through MSF in over 70 countries. What is it like to work in the most desperate and stressful healthcare environments in the world? To illustrate how personally and logistically challenging this work can be, Anne MacKinnon, a nurse and a director on the board of the Canadian chapter of MSF, recalls a particular incident:
“In Liberia, we were going to a remote area where there were a lot of malnourished babies. We were able to drive for an hour, but then discovered a bridge had been washed out. We had to put everything in backpacks and hike for an hour in a rainforest. It is beautiful, but it is very remote and muddy on this tiny path. I still remember walking up this hill. We came to a plateau with a little open field. Sitting in that field were 300 mothers holding their sick and malnourished children. It was just this overwhelming sight.”
Anne explains that MSF has a very strict curfew for the protection of its workers. If they do not return to their compound by 6 pm sharp, a set of serious security protocols would kick in.
“We set to work,” Anne continues. “My staff, my Liberian nurses and physician’s assistants were incredible. We worked all day in the heat. We didn’t stop to eat. We drank a little water. We saw about half of the mothers with their sick children and then we had to go.” The medical team had to make the difficult journey back to the compound before the curfew.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,” says Anne, “was stand in front of the rest of these women with very sick children who were not going to be alive in a week and tell them we were leaving. I remember them lifting their babies up towards me.”
Anne MacKinnon is now retired and living in Nova Scotia, but following her career as a nurse in New Brunswick, she signed up with MSF. In 1999, she heard Dr. James Orbinski, then president of MSF, give the acceptance speech when the organization won the Novel Peace Prize.
“His acceptance speech resonated with me,” says Anne. “He said ‘Humanitarian work is helping people less fortunate than ourselves, one bandage at a time, one suture at a time, one vaccination at a time’. That’s what I can do.” Since then, she’s worked seven field placements, including Haiti, Ethiopia and India.
One particularly challenging mission was in Ethiopia on the border of Somalia. She worked in the vicinity of three refugee camps, each with 40,000 inhabitants. Food was scarce; the temperature was in the 40s; security was very tight. “We had to travel in convoys and radio back to our compound every fifteen minutes. It was very tense,” says Anne. Still, the team managed to set up makeshift hospitals in the shade of trees or inside mud huts. “From nothing we could set up a little medical clinic.”
Anne talks about the difficulty of decompressing from such missions. “The first time I came back from Haiti, I walked into a grocery store with an abundance of food. I was overwhelmed. I turned around and walked out.”
Even in the face of all the need for basic medical care around the world, Anne regrets nothing. “You can’t stop the political unrest or natural disasters, the poverty or climate change that have caused the hunger gaps when the crops don’t come,” she says. “I have no control over that. But when I have one child in front of me, I can help that child.”
Even in that heartbreaking situation in Liberia, Anne and her team managed to help many more than one child. After leaving half the women with their untreated children behind, and in the face of pressing needs elsewhere, she insisted the team return. “I went to our boss and said ‘we have to go back’. Two days later we went back with staff who were volunteering extra time and did the same thing again. We saw the other 150 sick children. That was my happiest day.”
Photo is from Médecins Sans Frontières