It was a Saturday like any other.
In the morning I went to the hospital. My patients were stable. I went home, I had lunch, and, like every other Saturday, I thought about that long nap that I could afford to take.
In the middle of an eventful dream, one of the other doctors called me to ask my opinion on a new case. I asked him to do some check-ups and I promised to see the patient later.
The chance to nap was ruined, but no hard feelings eh!
At around 16:30 I got ready to go to the hospital. A regular Saturday and not the first time for me to work on the weekend… Except that I am in Walikale, in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, as my project coordinator told me: "You can never know what will happen here. You must always be ready for anything.”
And indeed he was right. Finally, this Saturday was not a Saturday like any other.
“There are patients with bullet wounds in the hospital”
I was ready to go to the hospital, but just as I was about to leave my project coordinator received an emergency call.
"There are patients with bullet wounds in the hospital. There was shooting at the nearby stadium and injured people are being transported there," says the voice on the other end.
I had the impression of a nightmare. Had my little quiet Walikale turned into a bloody Walikale?
An MSF supply plane lands near Walikale hospital. Photo: Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/MSF
I no longer had the right to go to the hospital until my project coordinator made a phone call to check it was safe for us to go.
After a few minutes that seemed endless, he said to me, "There are injured people in the hospital. Do you feel able to go?”
His way of asking me this question made me realise, once again, a reality about MSF: I will never be forced to do something against my will.
They had heard the shots and did not hesitate for one second to help their colleagues. I was proud to be part of this team."
It’s true that before leaving with MSF we sign papers that mention the names of our next of kin if we were to ever die during the project. But, in practical terms, we will never be forced to go where we do not want to nor stay where we do not feel safe.
If I had answered “No, I cannot”, he would have respected my choice.
My answer was "Yes, of course, I'm ready!” It is my role to be present and to do my best. Because we are all here to do our best – to give everything!
Mastering the situation
I went with our midwife to the hospital, which is four minutes from our base by motorbike. The people we greeted along the way were calm.
We arrived at the hospital and it was full of people. Probably as it is a place where people feel safer, even though the gunshots were just a few meters away.
While I was getting off the bike I saw some traces of blood. I immediately went to the sorting room, finding two children. One had a superficial injury and the other was suffering from anaphylactic shock – a severe and dangerous allergic reaction – caused when he was stung by something while hiding from the gunshots.
The nurses had already handled the situation. I was amazed by the work of these people and their calm.
A mother and child resting at Walikale hospital. Photo: Giorgia Girometti/MSF
After examining the two children I went to the surgery department and from there to the ward to examine patients’ gunshot wounds with other doctors in the hospital.
Life is strange sometimes. When one begins to be convinced that everything is calm, that nothing can happen, an unexpected event occurs - a shooting during a football match!
It took us about three hours to master the situation with everyone invested in everything.
Indeed, that afternoon there was an exceptional mobilisation of medical and paramedical personnel, even those who were not supposed to be at the hospital! They had heard the shots and did not hesitate for one second to help their colleagues. I was proud to be part of this team.
Joie de vivre
Returning to base after this Saturday like no other, I felt conflicted: I was excited at having been at the heart of something new, but scared that Walikale would no longer be as calm as it was before.
Despite the country’s traumatic history of conflict, and an uncertain present where violence and unrest still exist… it does not affect their joie de vivre!"
The is enough conflict and suffering in the world. There's no need to add any more.
The next day, while going to the hospital, I did not know what to expect or how people were going to be. But, Walikale was exactly the same as before. People smiled as always as if nothing had happened.
Most Congolese people I meet have a wonderful temperament and a kindness that is never indifferent. Despite the country’s traumatic history of conflict, and an uncertain present where violence and unrest still exist… it does not affect their joie de vivre!
The best description I have found of the national character is “refreshing”. It’s pure happiness to meet new people every day.
Once, we had a party in a sort of small improvised shed that was covered in tarpaulins. Suddenly it began to rain and the earth under our feet turned to mud. Do you think it stopped us from dancing and singing? Oh no! We were wet, had mud up to the knees and we continued to dance.
I laughed so much my jaw hurt! If one of us was soaked through the holes in the tarpaulin, the other would shout “Congratulations, you have been baptized!”
Here happiness has a taste for simplicity and spontaneity because we do not know what tomorrow will bring us. The present is the best gift for the future.