Is working with MSF like being on board the International Space Station?

Mike, a doctor from the UK, has recently arrived in Irbid, Jordan, where MSF is providing vital healthcare to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. In today's blog, he reflects on an interesting question...

Is working with MSF like being on board the International Space Station?

I was Skyping home recently and made this comparison and have since thought I ought to check it out (and Wikipedia, though not scientifically approved of, is very useful for filling in gaps in space station knowledge).

Image shows the international space station

The International Space Station. Is it so very different to life with MSF? Photo: NASA.

In both MSF and the space station there is a risk that to a greater or lesser extent you are working in a bubble with many of the same people all the time. Here I wake up in a room next door to the person who I shadowed to learn my role initially and who has a few more weeks here to do some special project development work.

When I go out into the rest of the flat I will find the programme coordinator who manages the team here (but who would be sure to say that when we’re in the flat is a flat mate, not a boss). In the next-door flat (and I note that the ISS too has two sections in its accommodation) are the other two  international staff I’m working with, one of whom is in charge of everything organisational and the other manages the entire health team (including me).

In the morning we will either walk together to the office (or the clinics) or get a car to take us. As on the ISS it is important to do things safely and so we take appropriate steps (which may vary but are much less significant here than in other MSF projects). Just as on the ISS, doing things without others knowing is not normal unless you are in your room.

I’ve also found that as I’ve parachuted myself into this situation I have few natural distractions so there is no popping out to do little bits in the garden or round to a friend‘s, and so, like on the space station, there can be little exercise. I have always tried to keep fit but to do it “naturally” and have found myself trying here to get some time on a static bike (as well as when possible walking to work) on a regular basis so that I get more exercise and variation in my life. I’m not convinced about static bikes compared to real ones though!

Rather like the ISS we are a small international group of people who have the challenge of living together and working together 

One side-effect of the small capsule or bubble that we live in here (though in the middle of a big city) is that there is a ‘tendency’ to just do a little more work occasionally… well in fact rather a lot of the time. So, colleagues are likely to be found just doing a little more of their work at any time of the evenings or the weekends. 

In Jordan the weekend starts on Thursday evening and runs till Sunday morning for our office, but for the clinical people (and so in fact for all of us in part) it is only a one day weekend. But at least one of my colleagues has been in the office at the weekend or catching up from home… (In the ISS they introduced well defined schedules of work, exercise and sleeping etc. possibly to make sure that this doesn’t happen!) There is no pressure from the top to make this overtime happen, the need as I see it is coming from the desire to achieve the goals we are here for (and the fact possibly that there is less to do in the rest of our lives at present).

On the ISS food is always ready for you and needs just reheating, and so too for five days a week in Irbid, we have food ready and cooked waiting for whenever we will manage to get home from the office. It is good: interesting Jordanian food which is adjusted periodically, I hear, to reflect the proportion of vegetarians in the team. (We are also, unlike the ISS, allowed food which has sauces that drip and things that crumble.) 

I’ve no complaints about the food and it certainly makes life easier when you’ve been at the project for a long day, but a small fraction of me wonders about getting out and trying some of the restaurants in this section of Jordan’s biggest university city. Maybe this will happen once I’ve been in project for a bit longer and know a bit more about what I’m doing and my Arabic has improved (it is slowly getting better and I have a lesson tomorrow!)

Rather like the ISS we are a small international group of people who have the challenge of living together and working together (though with a lot of Jordanian staff as well during the day: our equivalent of working with ISS’ mission control?)

Due to shuttle scheduling I understand that it is not easy to leave the ISS. It would be much easier to leave here

Each of us is normally here for nine months or more (which is a bit longer than on ISS where they normally are there for six months) though different people started at different times, which again happens on the ISS. My colleagues at the moment are South Sudanese, South Korean, German, and Swedish/British, though next week we have a new arrival who will change the balance and shortly later my Swedish/British colleague will leave!

I have only been here for a short time so far, but am aware already that how we behave and our cultural styles can create difficulties. I see a continuing need for each of us to work on keeping the team working as well as possible (whilst also getting the project’s work done).

For everybody other than me all conversations are in a language which is not their mother tongue; it is hard for us all to get the intended message and the received message right. (And native speakers like me tend to go too fast or be too complex or use the unhelpful British dry ironic sense of humour… though I’m trying to control it…)

Due to shuttle scheduling I understand that it is not easy to leave the ISS. It would be much easier to leave here early (though I’ve not got any plans!) as MSF accepts that some postings do not work for some individuals. It is also easier to get health care too (though for the rest of the team the route to that is through sharing their problems with me!).

Like ISS there is good mental health support for those who work for MSF, and acknowledge that they have health issues, from free access to meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace (which I’ve taken up) to support in the capital city and through our headquarters. 

I’ve only been here for a bit more than a week, the comparison may fade when I’ve been here for longer, found more ways into Jordanian society or ways to be outside the MSF bubble though improving my Arabic; and of course this may well be this particular international team with only 5 of us. For the moment the picture of the ISS and the MSF bubbles seems to describe what I feel and to an extent what I see around me.