What Does it Mean to be a Humanitarian Health Worker?

Twenty years ago, on the 19th of August 2003, a suicide bombing in Baghdad claimed the lives of 22 UN workers. Since then, the UN has commemorated the 19th of August each year as World Humanitarian Day; a chance to acknowledge their life-saving work.

At this moment, humanitarians are responding to crises on nearly every continent and across dozens of countries, often in dangerous environments. Alongside its core staff, UK-Med operates a register of nearly 1,000 health workers and humanitarians to create its on-call system for emergency health relief and has deployed more than 400 of them in the last year to countries including Ukraine, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Turkey.

In spite of the risks, these humanitarians stand shoulder to shoulder with the communities they serve, no matter who, no matter where, and no matter what.

World Humanitarian Day commemorates the dedication of people around the world who deliver aid to those in need.

Saving Lives in a Crisis

But what does this mean in practice, to those whom UK-Med deploys? What is it like to be on the frontline of some of the worst disasters and conflicts, treating patients in a hastily constructed field hospital?

UK-Med is one of the few INGOs operating in the east of Ukraine, setting up mobile health clinics and providing supplies, training, and surgical support for Ukrainian medics across the country.

“I’ve worked in a few conflict zones, but what always strikes me is how the teams pull together,” - Andy Kent, UK-Med surgeon.

Andy Kent is a trauma and orthopedic surgeon.

Andy joined the organisation on its first deployment to the country in March 2022, shortly after the full-scale Russian invasion. He has since deployed three more times, working alongside Ukrainian clinicians.

“Over the years I’ve learned that the first thing you should do is sit back, watch, and listen until you become accepted and understand the pre-existing skills [of the team]. I was amazed by how advanced the Ukrainian healthcare system was, but it had just been overwhelmed by the trauma needs created by war.”

Working in such challenging contexts can be demanding, both physically and mentally. Shehan Hettiarchy, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, also deployed to Ukraine where the war has led to an acute demand for specialist limb and facial reconstruction surgery.

“At the back of your mind you’re aware this is a country in conflict. There are dangers, but you balance that with the reality of the work you’re doing,” he explained.

Having previously deployed to Afghanistan, Shehan is no stranger to the kinds of traumatic injuries health services are witnessing in Ukraine. “The injuries are mostly the same, but I always find them shocking,” he said, “It’s important to continue feeling shocked by what you see – you should always be receptive to the fact that this is a human tragedy.”

“We have a moral obligation to try and help people no matter what the difficulties are – no matter how hard it is to get there, how dangerous, how constrained the resources - we still have to keep trying, no matter what.” – Shehan Hettiaratchy, UK-Med surgeon
Shehan Hettiarchy has deployed to Ukraine four times.

The Will to Save Lives

What keeps a humanitarian motivated in such challenging contexts? For Trish McCready, a critical care nurse, it’s the knowledge that she is part of a system that exists to save lives. “It’s about helping people in times of need, from individuals to whole countries,” she said.

“Humanitarian work has definitely made me a better nurse because it allowed me to see things from a different perspective. Until you’ve been to a conflict or disaster zone and seen it, it’s difficult to fully understand. It puts things into perspective. Most everyday people are the same as me and you – if everyone had some humanitarian experience the world would be a much better place.”

Clinicians working with UK-Med's Turkey response provided 7,048 consultations.

Helen Davey, a nurse and midwife, spent two months in Turkey with the UK-Med team after the earthquakes. She worked alongside Turkish healthcare specialists to deliver aid to those in need, including many women requiring continuity of care following the devastation of the region’s health infrastructure.

‘Women came to the field hospital for support after tremendous losses such as that of their homes and family members. Yet their humour and characters remained so strong and bright,’ she said, ‘As a midwife it is the loveliest feeling to be with women anywhere in the world, any time they need midwife care in their lives.’

As part of the Turkey/Syria earthquake response, UK-Med employed 109 personnel, nearly half of whom were local healthcare workers. As a mixed team of international and local staff, Helen and her humanitarian colleagues were bonded by their shared goal of providing care. ‘In UK med I feel secure because of the fantastic team I am part of. There is humour, empathy and care shared through us all. Knowing that your team has your back, physically and emotionally, makes uncertain environments far easier to work within,’ she said.

‘Personally, ‘no matter what’ means care for everyone. No matter what we are a team. Within all teams you will have varying personalities and people will react to different experiences and environments in so many different ways. But for me, no matter what, together we will empathise and look after each other and advocate for high quality, moral, considerate and well-coordinated healthcare provision in humanitarian disasters.’

Esther Moyo worked with UK-Med during its Malawi response.

Working alongside, and strengthening the capacity of existing local health systems is an integral part of UK-Med’s work abroad. In any humanitarian disaster, the vast majority of first responders are local staff who work tirelessly to deliver aid to their own communities.

Esther Moyo is a Malawian nurse and midwife who worked with the Emergency Medical Team (EMT) in Malawi, where UK-Med delivered emergency medical aid to stem the spread of cholera. Working alongside the Malawian Ministry of Health, UK-Med created a core team, including Esther, to provide medical support and training.

“It’s a very satisfying job,” she said. “We talk about touching lives in the hospital, but when you’re doing humanitarian work you really see the impact. It helps to develop the human spirit and brings out that spirit of kindness.”

Working with UK-Med

If you have the determination to make a difference, and would like to work with UK-Med, visit our vacancies page or follow us on social media.

UK-Med staff fall into three main categories: core staff, country programme staff, and register members. Core staff are full-time employees of UK-Med and ensure the continuing function of our operations overseas and at headquarters.

Country programme staff are part of our more established and longer-term humanitarian responses, such as our current Ukraine mission.

Register members are recruited to support surge and emergency response requirements, volunteering to be on call for certain times of the year. They deploy for short periods at a time (usually between 4-12 weeks).

UK-Med doesn’t only recruit clinicians. We draw on a wide range of specialisms to support our mission, including logistics, operations, human resources, communications, and finance.