I have just had a fantastic 10 days preparing for my first MSF posting. I am now sitting at the airport in Brussels waiting for the first leg of my journey to the Central African Republic. Sipping a chilled drink in the lounge thanks to my other life as a middle-aged, middle-class newly retired obstetrician. Feel a bit guilty about that. (Not too much!)
My reflections up to this point...
I had always admired MSF did and had kept up with their work through the newsletters. Prior to retiring after 35 years in the NHS, I attended a meeting at which a retired surgeon spoke about his work with an NGO in Africa and I thought "I can do that!"
I discussed it with Mrs Urquhart and happy to say that she was supportive, even encouraging, and allowed me a three-month sabbatical from our comfortable Scottish lives.
I started the application process at the end of August last year. The process was quite arduous (about equal to applying for an NHS consultant post) including updating a CV which had been lying in a drawer for 20+ years, references, personal statements and after that a rigorous interview at which I was asked loads of searching questions.
Most of the process was online, which took me out of my comfort zone a bit. I am still outraged that they have stopped the telegrams and blue airmail letters! (You might need to google these archaic terms).
Anyway, made it through and was accepted by MSF.
Having said all that I think it's good that the process is so rigorous, and it says a lot about the quality of MSF staff.
Quite soon after (Oct 16) I was offered and accepted my first mission to the Central African Republic (CAR) for 10 weeks from April to June 17. (I had actually wanted to go a bit earlier in the year before the golf season kicked off - but hey-ho - something has to give!)
It gets real
After Christmas it all got quite real, health checks, vaccinations, visas, induction day in London, getting "affaires in order" etc. The time flew in. Lots of seeing family and friends prior to departure.
I left on Sunday 26/3 from Edinburgh and flew to Rome for a week of preparation pre-departure (PPD). Made it on public transport (do taxis count?) to Centro Giovanni on the outskirts of Frascati.
The building is a bit like a Catholic 1970s university halls of residence.
Shared a room with French speaking Yves from Burkina Faso: a 'watsan' (water and sanitation engineer). There were 29 of us from 20 countries. The language of the course was English but French was useful - and it was good for me as they speak French in CAR where I am going.
I was the oldest at knocking 58. The average age was probably about 30. It was pretty full-on - starting Sunday evening. 10-hour days covering stuff like communication, team-building, people management and safety / security issues. Lots of exercises.
In the evening we all ate together and had a couple of beers. It was too far out of town to do anything other than attend the course and socialise with the other participants - which I think is why attendance was 100%. I think the point was to mimic conditions in the field to give us a feel for it.
I had worked for a long time as a senior NHS clinician so I had learned a lot of the lessons of the course in the past through experience - but it was still a very useful course. The others adopted me as 'Pappy' and made me feel 45 again! No chat about pension plans, who has died, who is waiting for a hip replacement or what are we going to do about a nursing home for granny.
I was very impressed by their enthusiasm, bravery, humanitarianism and pure Joie de Vivre. My generation will often be heard to despair of "the youth of today". There is no doubt in my mind that if these guys are typical examples - then the world is in safer hands than it was in ours.
The PPD finished on Friday evening and we had a bit of a party to celebrate. Danced the night away to the cool sounds of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
What the hell am I playing at?
We were all first-timers and started to disperse on Saturday - many of us went directly to Brussels for our field briefing. I had mine on the Monday. It was very helpful to speak to another obstetrician who had worked at the maternity hospital in Bangui where I was heading the next day. Reassuring. Having said that - woke up this morning with a knot in my stomache thinking what the hell am I playing at! I should be playing golf and spoiling grandchildren. Too late. I am committed now. (Should be - you say). The die is cast.
Now sitting in the transit lounge at Casablanca airport awaiting my onward overnight flight to Bangui, Central African Republic.
Gulp! The adventure really begins.