Is there anything quite as noble as a Western trained doctor leaving behind creature comforts and all that is familiar to work for free in a dangerous war zone? For decades, Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF (from the French: Medecins Sans Frontieres),has been sending medical personnel on stints of up to a year at a time to the world's poorest, most war-torn areas often in the most dismal, paltry conditions imaginable. And until now we could only imagine, as MSF is notoriously shy about publicity.
Now, for the first time, the organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize 10 years before President Barack Obama, has allowed a documentary crew unlimited access to its field operations in war-torn Congo and post-conflict Liberia. "Living in Emergency," interweaves the stories of four doctors who are forced into a daily struggle between what needs to be done and what can be done with no time to regret the wrong decisions or to celebrate the successes.
Of the four, perhaps the most easy to relate to is Dr. Tom Krueger. A Tennessee surgeon, he closed his medical practice after 20 years to serve in a West African hospital. It is his first assignment with MSF, and through his experiences we are given a front row seat to the desperate pace and the unrelenting horror of what war causes men to do to other men.
CS: What was it like to land in Liberia straight from Tennessee?
TK: I was just trying to get through my days, just keeping my head above water. The workload was 8-10 hours a day and a couple more at night. I was basically doing the work of 3 or 4 people. Half the time there wasn't an OB/GYN, but thankfully before I left I helped an OB/GYN do some C sections because I had to do 5 in one day. Everything we did was strictly an emergency, if you came in for a hernia--too bad. At the time it was a country of 3.5 million people and all of the professionals had fled. There were only 8 or 9 doctors left for the whole country and we had half at our emergency room! Still we were able to salvage 95 to 99 percent of the surgical patients we saw. They were cared for as good as anywhere in the world, and it's amazing to me how much you can do with the little you have.
How did you prepare for your trip?
Before I had gone I had had some leanings towards seeing this as being a truly spiritual journey. [But] any illusions to that were, well, dashed. The most shocking thing is when you get back and look at your own world with different eyes to see how screwed up we are. We live in a bubble. We just rush through our disposable lives. When you see how little others have and the needs that are not met, it really sours your taste for everything. On the ground we say "it is what it is" and you just deal, but when you go back, you can't be normal again. You become kind of scarred and a bit broken. [You wonder if] you should have been dissatisfied with yourself and the world as it is, all along.
How did people react towards you?
People were appreciative of what we're doing. I had more 'thank yous' in the first day there than a month in my office. There they have nothing and there are no expectations. They come in with one foot in the grave. Here you have private rooms, but there you'd have a room with 25 patients on cots a foot and a half apart. Every case was the worst I've ever seen and the next day I saw one just as bad or worse.
How did you keep the despair from getting to you?
I 've always had a bit of an optimist view and thought people are basically good at heart . But you see some of the things people have done to each other; how they treat them as sub human, and your views of humanity change a bit.
Why did you agree to be on camera at a time when your learning curve was so high?
Well, I was sandbagged, really. Most of the time I was barely paying attention to the cameras. After they filmed I didn't hear anything for a year and half; it didn't even cross my mind. Then I got a call to do more filming at my farm and [that's when I] found out they would be focusing on two newbie and two older doctors. I think they did a great job with all they had.
Have your experiences changed you now that you are back?
I don't feel as vested in our medical system. The standard of care and expectations here are unrealistic.I often have a dialogue with myself when I'm seeing someone; do they really need something done? Probably not. People want drugs for diagnosis that don't exist, like restless leg syndrome. We're medicating ourselves to happiness and it's having the opposite effect.
The film was just shortlisted for an Academy Award. Are you surprised ?
I'm happy the filmmakers are highlighting the work MSF does and how difficult it is. You are so stressed by what you do and what you see. [Before] people may have had a Hollywood view about this work, and this is a real depiction. I'm happy they didn't fluff it up in some way.
UPCOMING SCREENING: On Monday, December 14, 2009, "Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders LIVE with Elizabeth Vargas," an exclusive, one-night only event, will be broadcast via satellite from New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to thousands of Americans seated in nearly 450 movie theaters across the country.
Following the documentary, Elizabeth Vargas, anchor of ABC News 20/20, will moderate a LIVE town-hall discussion with frontline aid workers and award-winning journalists, including Sebastian Junger, best-selling author of The Perfect Storm and Vanity Fair contributing editor.
7:30pm Eastern / 6:30pm Central / 5:30pm Mountain / 8:00pm Pacific (Tape Delayed)
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