This month, with World Humanitarian Day, marked on 19th August, we’re celebrating our members and the teams they work alongside all over the world.
“I will never forget the celebration arranged by the local community and local staff when the final patient was discharged from the Ebola Treatment Centre.”
Paediatrician, Neonatal Transport Fellow and UK-Med member Rod Kelly shares the time he spent with UK-Med at an Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone and treating diphtheria in Bangladesh.
My normal NHS job is working as a paediatrician in the transport and retrieval service. I like working in retrieval because it allows people to have access to the healthcare they need, whether they live next to a big hospital or far away from one. So, it seemed natural to sign up for UK-Med – access to healthcare is a basic human right, and if we can help facilitate that access during times of emergency, then it’s definitely worth signing up.
In 2015 I was deployed to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, and in 2018 I was deployed to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh during the Diphtheria outbreak. Travelling to both places involved a fair bit of hanging around in airports or bus terminals waiting for connections, but it’s a good chance to get to know the team you’ll be working with a bit better and hone your Sudoku or card playing skills.
One of the great things about UK-Med is the pre-deployment training and briefings you get before you arrive in country. This really prevents things being overwhelming on arrival, gives you a good idea of what you are going to face, and helps you hit the ground running. So, my first thoughts for both deployments were “there’s a lot of people doing a lot of great work here, so I better concentrate and get my little bit of it right”. As the deployment goes on, people click together as a team and grow in confidence.
The most rewarding aspect was being a small part of something bigger, a collection of local healthcare workers, the local population and international volunteers all coming together to help. The most difficult aspect was sticking to the remit of the deployment. For example, in the Ebola deployment we were there to treat Ebola, and once patients were Ebola negative they needed to be discharged from the centre, even if you felt they still had other medical needs that might be unmet locally. This was similar in the Kutupalong diphtheria response.
My wife and I have three young kids, so it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare arranging childcare for them at short notice, but luckily our friends and families are very supportive. My employers and colleagues are very supportive too, mainly I think due to the well planned back-fill system that UK-Med uses, which allows volunteers to continue to be paid by their NHS employer while on deployment and arranges funds for locums to back-fill the shifts I would have been doing in the NHS while I’m away.
On both deployments the local healthcare teams were extremely dedicated and knowledgeable. It can’t be stressed enough that we’re not there to swoop in and tell local staff how things should be done; quite the opposite, they have far more experience and knowledge of the local healthcare needs and the resources available in the area. In the Ebola outbreak for example, local staff had been working tirelessly for months, at immense risk to themselves, before the international community responded in a coordinated way. We are there just to support them with additional manpower and equipment when needed.
I will never forget the celebration arranged by the local community and local staff when the final patient was discharged from the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kerrytown, and work to set up the survivor clinics could begin.
The abiding memories I have are actually not just of particularly ill patients or particularly traumatic experiences, but of how seeing kids in Sierra Leone or Bangladesh reminded me of my own kids and work at home. Even when dressed up in our protective gear, kids in the Ebola treatment centre would still chuckle when you did a silly dance or played with them, they’d still cuddle into their parents when you had to examine or treat them, just like in an NHS outpatient clinic. In the refugee camp in Kutupalong, kids ran up and down between the tents with makeshift kites made of string and plastic bags, just like my kids would play with their kites on the hills back home. I think those were the things I remembered the most because, although it sounds obvious to say it, it highlighted that even in massively different circumstances to what you are used to, kids are kids. Whatever luck or twist of fate has led you to be brought up in a city in Scotland or a refugee camp, every child has the right to healthcare, and we should do whatever we can to make access to that possible.
The best advice I received was to get your head down, try and hit the ground running and get on with it. Don’t think you’re going out to change the world. You’re part of a big team, do your bit to the best of your ability, then go home.
I think if you’re considering humanitarian work my advice would be if you feel you can do it, just go for it. We might put things off thinking “well, if I don’t do this, someone else will”. But they might not. The right person to do this might be you. It can be an immensely exciting, rewarding and challenging experience.
I think learning team working in challenging circumstances is definitely transferable to the UK, and deployment also gives you a sense of perspective on challenges or minor inconveniences back home.
I would definitely deploy again.