An Early Departure and Another Challenge

Theresa is a doctor from the USA who has been working in an MSF / Doctors without Borders clinic in Cambodia. As she comes to the end of her posting, an unexpected conversation sends her to a new country and a very different project...

At the end of September my medical coordinator asked me if I’d be willing to leave Cambodia early to work with MSF’s emergency response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh.

“Sure, sign me up,” I said, not really believing anything would come of it.

Now--six weeks, 83 emails, 5 Skype conversations, and 15 days of nail-biting suspense about my visa status later--I am in Cox’s Bazar, starting work as an outreach medical doctor in the Balukhali 2 settlement of the sprawling Rohingya refugee camp. Looking back, the funny thing is I had an image of myself getting pulled away from Cambodia to work with the Rohingya, so maybe there is an element of predestiny at work in this change.

Photo shows the door of the MSF Hepatitis Clinic. The MSF logo is emblazoned on the glass door.

The clinic. Photo: Theresa Chan / MSF

In addition to all of the communications mentioned above, the last six weeks have included a crash review course on refugee health issues, a frantic search for gum boots and gaiters (it’s muddy in the camp after a rain), a lot of grim-faced writing to bring the hepatitis C treatment guidelines into the best shape I can deliver, and a whole smorgasbord of existential angst. Before I left Cambodia, one of my colleagues asked how my state of mind was doing, and here’s what I told him:

  1. I’m nervous about going to Bangladesh, where all my recently-acquired expertise in hepatitis C won’t be as useful as my rusty knowledge about pediatric respiratory infections, diarrhoea, measles, skin eruptions, and nonspecific musculoskeletal pain.


  2. I’m sad to leave Cambodia, where I’ve gotten attached to all of my Cambodian and expatriate colleagues. We often talk about how lucky we are to work with such a funny, good-natured, hard-working and committed team of people. I wish I could bottle a little bit of their spirits to carry with me.


  3. I’m also really excited about going to Bangladesh. I’ve had at least five MSF coordinators and HQ staff members tell me “I envy you this assignment!” Envy may seem like a strange sentiment to apply to someone’s imminent departure for a refugee camp, but I think they are talking about the yearning so many of us feel to jump into a project where the needs are acute and the interventions lifesaving.


  4. This is embarrassing, but I’m dreading the change in living and working conditions. Phnom Penh has been very comfortable for me--a public health project, a comfortable apartment, freedom to go out for cocktails in the evening--but the project in Cox’s Bazar is just getting set up, so internet access is spotty, the expat house is crowded, and there’s going to be a lot of moving around, rearranging, and change for the foreseeable future. I’ll just have to trust the good sport in my nature, and find relief in laughter.

Of all of these stops on the roller-coaster of emotion, Number One is the steepest drop, the one that drags my heart into my throat. I was always destined to leave Cambodia, and my current departure is only one month earlier than scheduled, but this doesn’t make saying good-bye any easier, especially when the staff drop by with really beautiful cards:            

Image shows a beautiful greetings card with a pop-out flower and butterfly

A card sent by a colleague from the MSF clinic in Phnom Penh. Photo: Theresa Chan / MSF

One of my friends who has also worked in medical humanitarian aid told me when I started doing this kind of work: “You get far more than you give.” There has never been a truer statement. The project in Cambodia has taught me to be creative in medicine, shown me the privilege of teaching others, and introduced me to whole bunch of great friends. All of which helps me put a brave face on, knowing that the next challenge, in Bangladesh, will bring its own rewards.