© Karin Ekholm/MSF
There are so many things about aid work that can never be understood without lived experience. One of the hardest aspects to adequately translate to those at home is the feeling of straddling a gaping divide between two lives, maybe more.
Today, I sit poised and ready to deploy an advanced medical post at the drop of a hat. The idea of the post is to provide rapid, acute medical intervention to people fleeing conflict who require immediate stabilisation, in the hope this will tide them over until they receive definitive care. Pulling together this post has required 12 to 14 hour days for the past week, superhuman efforts and collaboration from my Iraqi and international colleagues, and intense emotional swings. People back home are saying ‘take a break’, ‘make sure you don’t burn yourself out’, ‘you can’t help anyone if you can’t help yourself’. Those phrases that we give each other in normal situations to allow ourselves time to breathe. This isn’t time for breath.
A young patient is examined at the primary health care centre in Al Alam camp, Tikrit. Photo: Karin Ekholm/MSF
Two feet, worlds apart
One foot stands solidly in Iraq – I’m a productive headless whirlwind trying to scramble together a medical response to save as many lives as feasible. The other foot is mobile – hopping between home in Australia and almost daily contact to India as I plan the opening of a café with a friend, just for something different.
One minute I’m running a rogue training for 50 newly recruited nurses, the next I’m giggling at a video of my nephews, growing up on the other side of an iPhone camera. All day at work I’m trying to get my head around coordinating the emergency response of logistics, HR, admin, pharmacy and medical departments, anticipating 100 scenarios, the 101st likely to be the real one. I’m sitting in a dusty warehouse, handpicking equipment that may or not be used to provide lifesaving treatment to any one of thousands of internally displaced people, then of a night I’m chatting industrial coffee machines. The two feet are connected by the same brain, but they’re worlds apart.
Shades of chaos
There are really no words to explain the bubbling frustration when one leg tells the other to take a break – the frustration itself a perfect indicator that a break is possibly just what I need. But there’s no time for it.
Women and children wait outside of the primary health care centre in Al Alam camp in Tikrit. Photo: Karin Ekholm / MSF.
There’s equal chance that this advanced medical post will and will not deploy. Either way the intensive effort will not be in vain. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, the world seems like it will be in shades of chaos such that this experience for myself and the entire team could prove invaluable.
I don’t have the time, energy or mental fortitude to try and explain to people in my other worlds the situation here. I am fundamentally unable to explain the nuance of a war I grapple to understand myself while on the ground, and the irony in telling me to ‘stay safe’ hangs on the end of every phone call. If only we could pause conflict for a day or two so everyone involved could have a breather, regroup and revitalise. Then again, if we could pause war, I would delay it indefinitely.
Until then, I eagerly anticipate this break I’m so strongly being advised of. A privilege that, in this area, is denied to many.