Running Into The Fire: In Praise of Medical Aid Workers

My thoughts over the last week have been very much with Pauline Cafferkey: the nurse who flew to Sierra Leone at the height of the Ebola epidemic, contracted and initially recovered from Ebola this year, and is now back in the Royal Free Hospital in critical condition.

Since the outbreak of the epidemic last year, hundreds of NHS staff have assisted in the crisis — mostly nurses and doctors who responded through the various voluntary agencies and through the voluntary government registers.

But did you know that this hasn’t been a one off?

The situation in West Africa over the last eighteen months is something that has generally been in the public consciousness. It could hardly not be, although, not for nothing, but as a geographical hemisphere it took a Western woman contracting the virus for us to really start paying attention — Teresa Romero, a nurse who came into contact with it while working with returned travellers in Spain. The efflux of healthcare workers to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea and then their return has also been something that has been known and talked about; again, it could hardly not be.

I suspect though that people are generally less aware of the thousands of healthcare and healthcare support staff who go to work around the world in areas of acute crisis and longer term humanitarian needs.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Christopher Bulstrode, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon in Oxford who is just one such person. He wouldn’t remember me: he was the highlight of a medical student conference that I was at in Bournemouth. At the time he was not long back from Haiti, where he had been part of the immediate response to the earthquake in 2010. They are a few years old now, but his diaries from Haiti are well worth reading.

A lot of the work is coordinated through NGOs: Medecins sans Frontieres, Medecins du Monde, MERLIN, Voluntary Service Overseas, and many others. The staff include doctors and nurses, but also pharmacists, logistics coordinators, mental health staff, lab technicians. It isn’t only on home turf that a multidisciplinary team is needed. 2500 staff go into the field every year from just MSF in the UK alone.

There are also staff in the UK who are registered with the international emergency medical and trauma registers (UK-IEMR and IETR). They were set up twenty years ago so that doctors could go to Sarajevo in the Balkans War, and have existed ever since. They were part of the response that enabled medical staff to be despatched to the Philippines in the aftermath of the tsunami and to Haiti, as well as during the Ebola epidemic.

I am in awe of all these people; of their skills and their selflessness and their courage.

And in that isolation tent in London, of a nurse from Glasgow too.

My thoughts and prayers remain with Pauline Cafferkey, and with all medical aid workers stationed throughout the world and the ones who have now returned home. They are people who willingly go into the middle of situations that most of us would rather turn tail and flee from, with their only real motivation to help people who need help. I am in awe of them and I am humbled by what they do.


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