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A life in the day of a Medical Teams International doctor

Posted in Life & Love

GetAttachment-2.aspxJeannie came into my life by way of a former neighbor and my husband’s trip to Portland a few years back. He returned with books that Jeannie, whom I hadn’t met yet, gave him for me, and the lapidary utterance “You would really like her”. It turns out I really do.

If I think of Jeannie, a whirlwind is what comes to mind. This amazingly energetic woman, who spent her entire professional life as a doctor, just chose to retire  after 38 years in medicine. For the past 31 years, she was an emergency department staff physician in a busy emergency department in Vancouver, Washington. Her retirement is not a plan to slow down – painting, dancing, reading, biking, music, languages, windsurfing, snow sports are just a few of the passions she is planning to devote more time to. Jeannie is also a relentless and adventurous traveller who has had three month long deployment for Medical Teams International for the past two years.

Medical Teams International is an organization she chose after careful research, one extremely highly rated on Charity Navigator, which provides medical assistance in all areas of the world that have been struck by natural calamities, are war-torn or just plain poor and in need.

Jeannie’s latest assignment, last November, was in Uganda, where she had previously worked at the large UNHCR resettlement camp of Nakivale. This time, though, was different. One week in, she and her colleagues were asked to relocate to the Uganda/Congo border for an influx of refugees. Thirty years in emergency medicine prepare you pretty much for anything but anyone with a beating heart would be hard pressed not to be moved by the plight of refugees.

“Shelling had penetrated to 5km inside Uganda and fighting had occurred on both sides of this porous, unmarked border:  without a river or geologic formation to identify sides, soldiers don’t know or care where they are.  Thousands and thousands and thousands of refugees poured out of the Congo at various points along the border.  The rich ones hole up in hotels…there were three Congo licensed cars at my hotel.   Despite the UN convoys taking 1,000 at a time to resettlement camps deeper inside Uganda, there were 10,000 refugees in the camp when we arrived. The day before, there were two deaths counted on the Uganda side: a baby was shot dead in his fleeing mother’s arms by government forces probably shooting an M23, in addition to numerous casualties.  A Congolese boy’s gunshot wound became infected and he had an AKA.  The family spoke French and his older brother related their concerns about a)how could a prosthesis stay on such a short stump and where would he get it from and, b) his future lies in education but how would he get to school once they were resettled…there are no school buses like in America…the kids walk.

The  UN runs two types of camps:  transit camps, with no infrastructure to speak of – just tarps mounted on sticks – where refugees are registered, sorted and asked questions about their family and ethnicity in order to reunite them with any pieces of their family and facilitate relocation to resettlement camps, if they so choose.  In the resettlement camps, refugees are assigned a plot to farm, given basic farming implements and seeds and a plastic tarp to use as a roof for the hut they built themselves. Thus starts a life of barter, of tending a small plot, of receiving rations of oils and beans. Some of these people are highly educated and it’s heartbreaking to see them reduced to such circumstances. But, at least, they are safe and alive. Such is the choice if you were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.GetAttachment-3.aspx

The life of an emergency doctor at makeshift hospitals all over the world does not allow for mundane pleasures. The days are long, filled with relentless lines of people waiting to see you. You would think in places where the UN is involved, organization would be paramount but resources can be overtaxed: people with no material possessions and, above all, no voice, are left to fend for themselves. Lines are long. Basic relief is the name of the game.”

Advised by a prior team that anxious patients were interrupting evaluations of others and not queuing up in an orderly fashion, Jeannie and her colleagues prioritized immediately:

“Preparation is everything…we’d initiated a number system for waiting and my translator advised the waiting throngs that anyone who entered my room uninvited would not be seen during that day. In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed the clinic and our patients received our full attention.

The difference between practicing emergency medicine in a First World Country and a Third World one is a difference of resources: a sick person is a sick person anywhere, but in places like Uganda doctors learn to practice medicine with less supplies and tests. Way less. From crocodile bites to HIV infection; amputation to rape; gunshot wounds and burns – it’s all in a day’s work, including educating the local staff . The lasting legacy of our work is training the staff, bolstering morale and demonstrating a revitalized focus on the individual patient and acting as antidotes to compassion fatigue.

Being an extrovert, I process disturbing material by talking about it with friends and family. But some of the situations I’ve seen  are so horrendous that I can’t talk about them yet.”

GetAttachment-1.aspxI asked Jeannie if in countries so impoverished by circumstances and shameless politicians, there is more resignation when it comes to death.

“Absolutely not” she answered “A child, a relative are just as precious to their loved ones as they would be here. It’s hard to let them go”.

Occasional rays of possibility and hope provide relief from so much misery. “Life in these camps is boring for those who live there, with no possibility to get out in the short term. I noticed that a lot of women had postural problems, aches and pains.” Armed with makeshift mats, at the end of each day Jeannie organized a Pilates class the women quickly came to look forward to. A class that didn’t end after her 3 week rotation, as her knowledge and her laminated notes and drawings were passed on to the local staff.

Medical Teams International provides doctor with accommodation, meals and, above all, security, in addition to keeping the clinics stocked with everything doctors flying in from all over the world are likely to need. It’s brutal work but rewarding work.

“My travels make it easier for me to accept a more simple life (a very healthy notion for retirement) because every time I return from the Third World, I realize that I have absolutely everything I really need.”

Jeannie is now back in Uganda, this time at the border with Sudan, where a large influx of refugees is taking place.

If you would like to know more about Medical Teams International, are interested in making a donation or volunteering click here

All photos from Jeannie’s archive


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  1. This makes me feel ashamed that I don’t do something more worthwhile – a truly remarkable person – and really making a difference to people in dire straits.

    January 21, 2014
    • I feel like you. There is so much I could do here in LA, as far as helping people, and I always justify my lack of volunteering with the need to draw a paycheck.

      January 21, 2014
  2. What an amazing woman she must be. Thank you for telling her story x

    January 19, 2014

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