World Humanitarian Day falls on 19th August, and so throughout the month, we’ll be hearing from our members who have delivered emergency healthcare around the world. Becky was part of the UK-Med team funding supporting the UK Emergency Medical Team response to an outbreak of diphtheria spreading through Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, part of UK aid’s wider response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.
“I have always been interested in using my skills in the humanitarian sector, but most organisations require a commitment of at least a few months at a time, which is not possible for me at the moment. UK-Med offers the opportunity to deploy for short periods while continuing my role in the NHS.”
I deployed to Bangladesh in response to the diphtheria outbreak in the Kutupalong refugee camp – the world’s largest refugee camp. When we first arrived I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee camp. It was all you could see in any direction. The inadequacy of the dwellings was quite shocking – people were in tiny shelters made out of sticks and polythene, or tarpaulin if they were lucky, and sleeping on the mud ground. There were children everywhere! Tiny children apparently on their own or cared for by older siblings. The contrast between that and the life of my children was immense.
Gradually I got used to it and began to recognise the camp infrastructure: the community leaders who provided support to the refugees, the little stalls selling food and clothes, even makeshift pharmacies. Children had a routine of sorts and I loved seeing them go to school with their turquoise UNICEF schoolbags, or playing with kites made from litter – finding a way to do what children do, even in very challenging circumstances.
Knowing that we were barely scratching the surface of the great need in the camp was hard to live with. There was a constant feeling of wanting to be able to do more. Also knowing that children were dying of a disease that was entirely preventable, if they had access to vaccinations.
On the other hand, being able to see the difference we made a first hand was incredibly rewarding. Seeing children get better and return to their families. The opportunity to work with a fantastic team both from UK–Med and also from international partner agencies was a great way to learn.
My family and friends missed me and probably worried about me a bit, but were also proud of the work I was doing and could see how rewarding I found it. For my children, I feel it was an important insight into how different life can be according to where you are born.
During a night shift I was caring for a little girl while she had her diphtheria antitoxin. She required close observation because of the risks associated with the medication but it was difficult to communicate because of the language barrier. She had no toys. I made her a chain of paper people and as I unfolded it her face lit up. I offered it to her and she accepted it so gratefully and gently, as if I was placing precious jewels into her hands.
We worked with colleagues from the International Organisation for Migration. They were incredibly welcoming and it was great opportunity for us to learn from each other, not only about clinical things but also about life.
I remember one very special little boy who was treated at the diphtheria treatment centre. He had fled from Myanmar with his father, grandparents and some of his siblings after his father came home from work to find most of their village on fire and the child’s mother missing. To keep his children safe the father had to leave without his wife and make the journey across the border on foot. After being in Kutupalong for only a short time, his son fell ill with diphtheria. I wondered how much more his family could possibly take. He was one of the patients we treated with diphtheria antitoxin. Treating that little boy and watching him recover was immensely rewarding.
The best advice I received before being deployed was to understand as much as you can about the people, the culture and the context of where you’re being deployed to. I would encourage fellow clinicians considering humanitarian work to take the plunge! It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do as a healthcare professional. I would deploy again without a moment’s hesitation!
I appreciate the NHS more now. Much as it’s not perfect, universal free healthcare at the point of delivery is life-changing. Knowing I can be taken out of my comfort zone into a foreign country, different system and completely unknown team and still thrive has given me greater confidence in my abilities and resilience.”