A challenge I am more than happy to accept

18 February 2016

I am writing this pre-departure blog from the airport in Paris.  It has been a hectic few days to say the least, so this is the first chance I have had to put some thoughts down in writing before heading off to South Sudan.

In my normal day job, I am an adult hospital medical doctor from the United Kingdom. I have previously worked as an emergency medicine doctor in a government hospital in South Africa, as an expedition medic in Madagascar and as a pre-hospital medic at large music festivals in the UK. This is my first mission with MSF.  

Preparing to work for MSF has made for an interesting year so far. I completed a Diploma in Tropical Medicine in November and I am looking forward to putting the theory into practice. This was followed by an interview at the MSF UK offices and acceptance onto the register of potential field workers available for deployment. 

I didn’t have to wait long before a mission came up. The phone call came just into the New Year - could I be ready to go to South Sudan in... four days?? After a bit of negotiating and the realisation that it was going to be nearly impossible to get all of the required vaccines and paperwork done in this time, the four days was extended to 10. I am glad it was, as I seem to have filled all of these 10 days and am still only managing to write this now at the airport!

Ten days of vaccines, medicals, tying up all of my loose ends in the UK, frantically re-reading tropical medicine text books, phone calls back and forth with MSF offices in Paris/UK/New York, emotional goodbyes with friends and family and numerous “last meals” (mainly consisting of lots of cheese!) Then the attempts at packing for nine months with a total combined luggage weight of only 20kg.

After several attempts I finally managed to get down to the required weight, whilst still managing to pack my favourite game Bananagrams, a (miniature) rugby ball, a radio, cheese (you may see a theme developing) and even a (very thin) guidebook to South Sudan.

Before departure, there have also been several briefings with experienced advisors within MSF, getting me up-to-speed with what I will be doing and what to expect. My role will be working in a hospital supported by MSF in Aweil, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state in northwest South Sudan.

I will be working with paediatric in-patients, which will be an interesting challenge for me given my usual role as an adult doctor. Children make up a large amount of the work MSF does, as they are the most vulnerable to diseases and malnutrition in areas where healthcare is lacking, so it is a challenge I am more than happy to accept.

The world’s newest country, South Sudan has been wracked by years of civil war and lacks much basic infrastructure. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and most of the population are subsistence farmers, trying to grow enough food to survive week to week, day to day.

This year, the influence of the El-Niño weather phenomenon is disrupting the normal seasons and therefore crop planting and harvesting.

There is a real concern that food insecurity may increase and with it the number of children requiring admission for therapeutic feeding for severe acute malnutrition.

This will be one of the main focuses of my work, as well as treating children for the wide range of tropical diseases they are at risk from including severe malaria, meningitis and kala azar - a devastating parasitic infection.

So it is with enthusiasm but a little trepidation that I board my first of four flights to take me to South Sudan and see what my first mission will bring.