Which is the most resilient? A bacteria? A virus? It’s an idea! Both tough and highly contagious, an idea, in my experience, is almost impossible to root out once it takes hold.
© Devi Prasad Mohapatra
It was an idea that led to the creation of MSF in 1971 and it was also an idea that inspired me 14 years ago. I had just graduated from medical school in 1999 (coincidentally the year that MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). I came across one of its advertisements in a leading daily subtly saying - “Put your ideals into practice: Work with MSF”. Thus was the inception of MSF in my mind. I had to wait for 13 long years to get a chance to associate myself with them. Meanwhile, I completed my general and plastic surgical residencies, two skills I could put to use during my first assignment with MSF in 2013 when I went to Gaza.
The ‘fortunate’ moment
It was a fortunate moment when an MSF team visited the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research (JIPMER) to meet Director Dr T S Ravikumar and Professor in the surgery department, Dr D Kadambari, for highlighting their activities. I listened with rapt attention to the proceedings and as soon as the meeting was over, indicated my inclination to join MSF. The MSF team was forthcoming in explaining to me all the formalities and I lost no time in applying as an expat volunteer. Things went fast and I landed up with a request for a plastic surgery assignment in Gaza by MSF office in Delhi. I had no second thoughts on attending to this. They sent me all the security details of the field. With just a cursory glance on the documents, I emailed my response - “Yes”. I was then put in touch with Dr.Chanjiv Singh, senior plastic surgeon and the first of such specialists to go for an assignment with MSF from India. He was absolutely encouraging.
I secured permission from JIPMER to use my 30 days annual vacation so as not to disturb my responsibilities there. Necessary documents were arranged. I was now prepared to embark on my “mission”.
My first briefing was at MSF Paris office; I just fell in love with the place! It felt like home and it seemed that all the people I was dealing with were old friends. Then came the departure to Gaza.
I reached Jerusalem from where I was led to Erez for crossing into Gaza. I remember the day vividly. “Welcome to Gaza” were the words I heard as soon as I put my foot on its soil. Ayiman, our MSF driver, greeted me with a warm smile. He took me to the MSF office, which was closed as it was a Friday, and then to the guest house just above it. Here I met my four colleagues- Renee, my field coordinator, anesthetist Ilka, OT Nurse Maria and ICU nurse Rochelle. We were joined a few days later by Jutta, medical coordinator, for the assignment. A humorous and dynamic lady, working with her was a joy! She had lots of stories from past experiences with MSF and I could gather what working in other assignments would be like.
The work started with me and Ilka assessing patients for possible surgery after a screening procedure. Over the next few days I got to operate in the tent, I saw about 150 patients and performed surgeries on 37.
Working in this “mission” was an overwhelming experience because it made me realise the fact that there are people who don’t have the privilege to get medical care on demand or being operated in a concrete building. I saw patients with hand injuries, burn scars, wounds from trauma or uncontrolled diabetes. I saw children with hands deformed from birth. People with shrapnel injuries also arrived for treatment. Fortunately, my plastic surgery background helped me manage these conditions.
As a doctor, my work here was also different from the “safe zone” back home in India. There are visible gaps in the healthcare system in Gaza, where there can be a long waiting list for patients seeking specialist medical expertise. I was aware that I will not be able to follow-up with those I have seen. I had to do my best for them since the possibility that they would either have none or delayed access to the required medical attention was very real.
The tent in which I worked, with facilities for surgery, dressings and assessment of patients, was the theatre of repair and hope. To make the sailing smooth, there were many others, including Khaled, our hygienist, who was responsible for infection control in all those patients operated on by maintaining the MSF postoperative protocol.
© Devi Prasad Mohapatra
All those whom I came across during the assignment were wholeheartedly working towards a common goal-- to ensure that medical care is provided to all individuals regardless of the situation. This motivation level is “uncommon”.
“Kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisar,
Kisi ka dard mil sake to le udhaar,
Kisi ke waaste ho tere dil mein pyaar,
Jeena isi ka naam hai…”
(“To offer yourself to someone for their smile,
To share someone's grief,
To have love in your heart for someone,
This is what life is all about…”)
Sang the legendary Indian vocalist Mukesh half a decade ago and it still seems relevant now.
As the days of my “mission” drew to a close, my heart became heavy at the prospect of missing my new friends who had, in a short span of four weeks, occupied a large part of my heart and soul. I finished with a dream to come back again.
In my journey to the centre of the Earth and back, I would like to acknowledge the support, advice and best wishes of all the good human beings I came across in MSF and beyond, due to whom I could complete what I set out to do on a great note.
- Devi Prasad Mohapatra
Devi Prasad Mohapatra is currently assistant professor of plastic surgery at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research (JIPMER), Puducherry.