Last September, I went for a wee jog around Glasgow to raise money for Medecins Sans Frontieres. St Mary’s contains a developing Justice and Aid Network whose purpose is to allow people to share stories about the charitable causes that they support, and, as the congregation rushed to support me in my madness, they also wanted to know more about the people I was doing it for.
This is (mostly) what I said to them this morning:
“On January 13th 2010, I was in Newcastle after having spent Christmas and New Year with my family. It was only a couple of days before I was going to come home and go back to work, and, on that morning, we all slept late and ate breakfast together. Then, we turned the TV on and we began to hear reports of an earthquake in Haiti. I think we all remember the first time we saw the images of what had happened there. The devastation. The destruction. The wonderment that anyone could possibly have survived this.
But survive it they did.
The epicentre of the earthquake had been 15km from Port-au-Prince. 9 or so miles, if, like me, you’re a bit metrically challenged. Imagine we had an earthquake tomorrow with its epicentre at Glasgow Airport — 9 miles from where we sit now. It would be devastating. It would be difficult to cope with. But we would have access to the infrastructures and to the medical facilities that people need in times of great disaster. Even if the Western and Gartnavel were damaged, we would be able to head just a bit further away. To Glasgow Royal. To Stobhill. If we really needed to, we might even venture to the hospitals on the South Side.
Port-au-Prince is not Glasgow.
Haiti is not the United Kingdom.
At the time of the earthquake, many of the major publically available medical facilities in Port-au-Prince were already being provided by aid agencies. A lot of them were being provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres. MSF were running a trauma centre, which was the only facility in the city for emergency surgery. MSF were also running a rehab centre, an emergency department, and an obstetric hospital. There were eight hundred Haitian and thirty international staff already working in the city.
And then, all Hell quite literally broke loose.
Immediately after the earthquake, it became clear that MSF’s facilities had been damaged, some to the point of being unusable, and that many of their staff were missing, but they were the medical personnel in the middle of a disaster zone. The people came to them and emergency first aid was given, all day and long into the night. In the first 24 hours, over 1200 people were treated.
By January 14th, there was an effort to get staff and equipment into the country. It’s difficult, though, when the airport has been blocked off by the earthquake, and, for the time being, the staff who had already been on the ground had to cope as best they could. Surgery began to take place under plastic sheeting. An emergency clinic was set up in what had been the administrative offices. A makeshift hospital was formed in Cite Soleil, outside the area of immediate damage, and patients were evacuated there.
By January 16th, forty-one new staff had managed to get into Haiti and they were able to start trying to find people who had been injured but had been unable to get to Port-au-Prince for help. The medical response in the city was still focused on life- and limb-saving surgery, and by this time there had been four operating theatres set up, one of them in an old shipping container.
It was established on January 22nd that four members of the MSF staff had died in the initial tremor.
The work still went on. The work went on even when more facilities were damaged in an aftershock that measured Richter 6.1, not that much less than the actual earthquake. A number of emergency and mobile clinics had been established, an inflatable hospital had been constructed, and surgical staff were doing over a hundred operations each day. 5400 people had been treated since the initial tremor. This would rise to over 41,000 by March 3rd. This had been MSF’s biggest disaster response in its thirty year history and the work continues there today.
Medecins Sans Frontieres means Doctors Without Borders. The organisation was established in 1970 by a group of French doctors who were working in the Nigerian civil war. They wanted to treat everyone who needed treatment and they wanted to be able to speak out against the atrocities that they were witnessing, but this was made impossible by the political bias of the governments that they were working for. In setting up Medecins Sans Frontieres, their aim was very simple and incredibly complex: to be an independent humanitarian organisation that provides medical aid to those who most need it, irrespective of their colour, race, religion, or political affiliation. Today, that is still their aim.
They want to send doctors to places where people need doctors.
Now, they have ongoing projects in over sixty countries. They provide medical relief in places that have suffered natural disasters, such as the tsunamis in Japan and in Thailand. They go to help victims of human conflict: in Sri Lanka, in the Sudan, in Rwanda, in Darfur. They have a presence where there is simply inadequate healthcare, which is why they were in Haiti before most of us had ever heard of it.
On January 13th, I felt fairly impotent. It’s a feeling that you get used to as a medical student — a lot of what I do is about standing around and watching and feeling helpless to do any actual good. That was what I felt when I saw those images on the TV. I know that that was how a lot of my friends felt. All we could do was watch our much more senior and much more useful colleagues go and wish them Godspeed.
I am not a member of the MSF staff — I would, at this point in my career, be a liability in a disaster zone.
I am someone who wants to get the word out about the good work that they do and to try to boost their fundraising, and, some day, I hope, to take a more active role.
The most straightfoward way to donate is directly through the MSF website. I’ve given into the madness again and will once more be running a half-marathon in September, this time around Bristol, to raise awareness and money for MSF. If you prefer to donate this way, you can do so on my JustGiving page.”