Introduction to MSF

27 November 2017

Mike is a doctor from the UK, who is about to start his first assignment for Doctors Without Borders / MSF. He’ll be working in our projects in Jordan, where the patients are largely people who have fled the war in Syria. In Jordan, Mike will be drawing on his extensive training experience to help develop the skills of the local staff, but today he blogs about going back to the classroom himself, as he joins the MSF pre-departure training…

I’m blogging after my introductory course for those who are about to go on their first assignment with MSF. Apart from the course leaders there are 40 of us this time and we are a wonderfully diverse bunch. There are about 17 different nationalities (some people have more than one, so this number might even be bigger!) and we must range in age from 20s, through to those of us like me, with either little hair or all of it grey, of whom there are three or four. Most parts of the world are represented, though there are no Chinese or South Americans. 

We have all chosen to work in potentially dangerous places for people in need.

It is great to be with a group of people who are so rapidly connecting through our beliefs. We have all chosen to work in potentially dangerous places for people in need. We have fascinating discussions about our differences, and our paths to this point. The energy reminds me of being a student (though with lots of very wise, experienced and well-travelled people).

Image shows a group of MSF / Doctors Without Borders trainees at the initial training.

Some of my fellow trainees, including the three Patricks!  Photo: Mike Tomson / MSF

This group brings a new definition of ‘team’ for me, as the primary care teams I am used to have not normally included logisticians, water and sanitation engineers, or specialist communications people, and it is the first time I’ve trained with a humanitarian affairs officer. All of which has been a great reminder of how important it is to understand the full role of the team and all those involved, which I depend on normally. Also, a great reminder that, though these things are organised in different ways back in the UK, they are essential to enable any fully functioning health system. One of the exercises in the five-day training looked at how each of us works in a team because this is so important to our work. It was a relief to find that my suggestion of what I did and how this worked in the team was confirmed by the team members.

The teams I am used to have not normally included logisticians or water and sanitation engineers...

I have rapidly become aware of the incredible wealth of experience within this group: people who have worked through the recent ebola epidemic or in many different roles in the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been struggling (I’m good at self-doubt!) with whether I fit with this group of impressive people, many of whom have gone through complex selection processes looking at their motivation and skills: the standard they set is high.

As someone who is often in the role of a teacher it is refreshing to be a pupil for a while and experience the opposite perspective. In the MSF introductory course, the learners were not in rows (except at one point when really learning about security threats). The exercises are very interactive and though for me it was reassuring to meet familiar techniques, (apart from snowball fights!) it has been good to experience these things as a learner.

As someone who is often in the role of a teacher it is refreshing to be a pupil for a while

Describing the details of the course in this post is probably not helpful, as the surprise elements will be useful learning points for future participants. One element of being here has been to remind myself how British I am, and how this affects the way I approach things. I’ve come to smile and enjoy the “oh you would say that from a British perspective” (especially around following rules or methods, and not getting to the point too quickly). It’s never a criticism, but certainly a reminder that for me being British is one option and it is good to become part of a family in which I can take on other possibilities too.

I’ve learnt more about my personal responses to stress, and the need to control my right eyebrow and the left corner of my mouth which appear to give this away too easily (though only if the raised shoulders and faster breathing have not done this already!)

One element of being here has been to remind myself how British I am, and how this affects the way I approach things...

For me one highlight was being asked with three others at very short notice to do a presentation on “What is stress and burnout and how we can avoid this?”. I was grateful to be led by the group on the content we needed to cover, and then to remind myself how much I enjoy and get totally engaged with teaching, and finding new ways to explain panic or breathing issues or… I’m told it went down well and boosted my confidence that I may have got something to offer as a teacher in this new setting.

It’d be odd to reflect on my induction and not comment on the principles behind MSF: neutrality and impartiality in any conflict, a commitment to the patients provided with a fully ethical approach, and a commitment to witnessing or ‘temoinage’. There is, of course, some fear for my colleagues as I see them going to places likely to be much more unstable than Jordan, armed with their MSF T-shirt and relying on the commitment to neutrality and impartiality and the reputation that MSF has to keep caring as long as it can for patients, rather than a bullet proof vest… But there is also, for me, a sigh of relief that we’re going to do something that matches our skills and experiences.

 

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