Having spent the better part of the last four months living out of a suitcase, I am glad to finally be home – where I can live out of a suitcase in my own apartment (yes Mum, my bags are still in the hallway). Naturally, returning home provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection. But I’ll spare you all the extent of my introspective dialogue and write about the one question that has loomed largest: what exactly was my role in Angola and South Africa (and before that, in Haiti and India)?
As a student, I have the luxury of simply saying that I was there to learn. But as I approach the transition point between being a student and being a doctor, I have to start thinking about what else I bring to the table? Sure, someday I will have a skill set with which I can treat patients. But what responsibilities do I have beyond that?
The UN Peace Keepers in Haiti. Were we observers too?
As a doctor, I
have will have unique access to people, thoughts, and locations. A journalist must earn the trust of his interviewees, but a doctor is frequently trusted by virtue of his or her title. So am I responsible for bearing witness to reality as I see it? Or, on the contrary, is it a violation of trust and objectivity if I tell the world about the lives of my aggregated patients?
Jaques Beres, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders, recently crossed illegally into Syria to help care for the victims of the atrocities carried out under President Bashar al-Assad. In his time there, Dr. Beres operated secretly on 89 people, saving all but nine of them. But his work didn’t stop there. When he was forced to leave the country, Dr. Beres had articles published about his experience in the New York Times and the Huffington Post (and probably more).
In South Africa I met an anesthesiologist who had, almost unwittingly, travelled to Mogadishu, Somalia as part of an Islamic medical mission, a city that few others are able to safely enter. Unlike Dr. Beres, however, this anesthesiologist – who risked his life to care for patients – seemed to have little to say about his experience when he returned. In fact, before he left, he barely knew about the extent of the crisis that the country had been facing. Having laid eyes on one of history’s greatest humanitarian crises, this doctor seemed uninterested in telling the world about what he saw.
So maybe I’ve revealed my bias. I suppose by virtue of having a blog on international health issues, I had already revealed my bias.
It seems to me that doctors in general can do a better job bearing witness. For most of us, our practice won’t be as dramatic as sneaking into Syria or flying to Mogadishu. But we will nevertheless interact with people whose voices are seldom heard. And we will hear the stories of their struggles. It seems only right that we serve as their megaphone.