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Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders)

Debra-Lee's story - a love of France and helping people through the French medical aid organisation


Médecins Sans Frontières is the world’s largest independent organisation for medical humanitarian aid. Every day over 27,000 staff work in the organisation’s facilities around the world providing assistance to people caught up in conflicts and emergencies, including natural disasters, wars and epidemics.

In many countries where Médecins Sans Frontières works, people are forced, due to lack of facilities, to walk hours or even days for medical treatment when they or their children suffer from malnutrition, trauma or respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

Last year, I managed a project for Médecins Sans Frontières  in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the most violent and unstable countries on earth.

Médecins Sans Frontières runs the paediatric and intensive care wards in the public hospital in Gety, north east DRC, an area where the civilians have borne the brunt of over a decade of violent conflict. From 1998-2003, DRC was home to the ‘Second Congo War,’ a deadly conflict which is estimated to have claimed the lives of 5.4 million.

Today, violence remains one of the biggest local problems with regular and constant sexual violence by soldiers and militia, and poor health facilities in what is such a fertile and beautiful country.

The people live by growing their own crops and selling them in local market places all around their local vicinity. However, many have to walk for hours to markets which makes them susceptible to robbery and sexual violence. Most live in local dwellings and at any time of the day residents can be seen sweeping and keeping their local vicinity clean and free from dust - an impossible job when there are only dirt roads/tracks.

Why Médecins Sans Frontières was for me? I believed in the work I could do and the difference to individuals that I could make and I truly believed in the neutrality and impartiality, including the medical ethics that the organisation offers all of its beneficiaries. Due to this independence and impartiality, Médecins Sans Frontières  limits the amount of funding from governments: 90 percent of our funding comes from private donors.  Médecins Sans Frontières’ activities are based on medical needs alone, not on political, economic, religious or social agendas.  What I really love and respect about Médecins Sans Frontières,  is that we treat everyone regardless of religion, race, gender or political affiliation. There is one rule however to maintain this neutrality – no weapons in our health centres or hospitals.

In 2003 I cried tears of joy when accepted as a Registered Nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières  and a month later many more tears when offered my first six month posting: Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan, the scene of much fighting then and now.  After 6 months of being confined to the Médecins Sans Frontières  compound except when going to the refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps I finished my placement with a burning desire to continue working in this line of work. And I definitely wanted to stay with Médecins Sans Frontières.

The next project was nine months in Bangladesh, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Here, access is usually denied to foreigners due to the violence, however Médecins Sans Frontières  was able to operate due to its neutrality and impartiality. In this project, I had an added responsibility as I commenced my first placement as a Project Coordinator leading the team. Eighteen  hours after I arrived, 100 bombs went off simultaneously around Bangladesh, 5 in the town where we were based.  An interesting and challenging start as a team leader although, due to our stance as a neutral and impartial medical team we believed we were safe, which proved to be true.

Later I arrived in Liberia, several years after the end of 14 years of civil war and just days before Médecins Sans Frontières  opened a new hospital at Saclapea.  Two of the saddest experiences I have had with Médecins Sans Frontières  come from Saclapea.  The first was when a mother asked if I could take a photo of her son which of course I did without hesitation and then showed him. After several weeks of being sick, it delighted her to see him with a huge smile on his face. He died just a few hours later. The second was when a man knocked on my office door at the hospital and asked for a cardboard box outside my door. He explained that his seven year old daughter had just died and he wanted to use it to bury her in. Many patients arrive at our facilities too late, the distances they have to travel being so vast.

Of course there are many happy stories as well and these are the ones that make me realise what a huge difference Médecins Sans Frontières  makes in its emergency activities. People who would otherwise die are saved; people having a ‘dignified’ death; emotional healing following sexual and other violence; and even just a smile from a foreigner - they know that someone from the outside world knows of their plight.

Six months in Kenya, on the border with Uganda, was followed by nearly two months in Haiti in 2010 which was one of the best professional and personal experiences of my life: a cholera epidemic followed closely on the heels of a devastating earthquake. A 29 hour shift was followed seven hours later by a 18 hour shift. We were all on auto pilot and working as hard as we could to make a difference to the patients. Training all of the staff including doctors, nurses, cleaners etc to cope with a disease they had never had in the country before was exhausting but very rewarding, as was seeing the many patients who recovered and were able to walk out of the cholera treatment centre cured of this potentially fatal disease.  At the height of the outbreak, we had over 600 patients at one time, and that was just where I was working in Cap Haitien, in the north of Haiti.  Since the start of the outbreak, Médecins Sans Frontières has treated more than 30 percent of all patients throughout the country. Cholera has to date claimed around 7300 lives in Haiti.

People comment all the time: “you are so good to do this work” and make other such similar comments. However, I do not believe in true altruism, I believe all of us who work for Médecins Sans Frontières  do so for our own reasons. The typical Médecins Sans Frontières  worker is a strong character, someone who wants to get the job started and finished and do good work in between, usually without strong limitations. We are not religious or missionary types, although have quite strong views on political and humanitarian affairs and as well we work extremely long hours when needed. Most do this without complaint  and as though lives depends on us (which is mostly true), however we can also relax, unwind and have fun which most of us find absolutely necessary to keep our sanity.


So somehow this leads me on to France, my favourite country in the entire world. Having never been to Europe before I started with Médecins Sans Frontières, Asia being my local ‘playground’, I was in awe when I first stepped off the plane in Germany to start my basic training. A meeting with a Parisien training person from Médecins Sans Frontières on my placement in Liberia lead to a promise for her to take me to Paris, my dream destination.

On the train when crossing the border from Switzerland, where I go to debrief following my work in the field, into France, I feel an immediate peace and when entering Paris I feel the love pour from my heart. This is MY country even though I have never been here before nor have any family history that I know of.  I feel such a strong affiliation – so the beginning of a love affair that has never waned commences and I, at every opportunity, spend as much time in France as I can. Soon I hope to buy an apartment in Tours, southwest of Paris and only an hour away from Paris by train. My attempts at learning the beautiful French language have been appalling, not for want of trying but obviously language is not a strong point of mine. However the French love my feeble attempts and I have lots of laughs with them. Where are the arrogant French? I have never met them in any of my many visits, and I have travelled from Paris to Nantes, Champagne district, Marseille, Briancon, Bordeaux and many places in between.  I now travel by Couchsurfing which is a great way to meet local people, learn the customs and all about the area in which I am travelling. I meet Couchsurfing hosts extended family, their friends, learn about their jobs and generally build up a good rapport so that it becomes quite sad when I leave although nice to have many invitations to return.

It may seem bizarre to be able to work in the ‘hotspots’ of the world with the poorest people who are experiencing horrific medical emergencies and then a day or two later to be standing on top of the Eiffel Tower marvelling at what a magnificent sight I can see. However I have always loved the extremes of life and this lifestyle helps me debrief from the horrors and truly enjoy what a wonderful life and a beautiful world we live in despite the tragedy that surrounds us.

For more information about the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, visit

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