Last summer, I traveled to the Jordan/Syrian border to provide medical care for hundreds of Syrian refugees – the vast majority of them women and children. I worked with marginalized populations before, but this was an experience unlike any other. It affected me. It changed me. And it absolutely changed my view of international medicine especially in the context of humanitarian work.
Humanitarian aid. Mission medicine. Call it what you will, it’s controversial in many ways. I personally, have had a difficult time reconciling the benefits and the disadvantages of such work, having been involved in it in many different countries and contexts now.
I was very vocal about my last trip. I spoke out about it prior to leaving. I fundraised money for supplies and I shared my experiences openly. If you haven’t read about some of my experiences and you wish to, you can find them on my website here: https://www.flyingphoenixmd.com/humanitarian-med-travel/.
In contrast, I have not spoken about my upcoming trip hardly at all. Most people didn’t know about it until just before I was leaving. I wondered to myself – why wasn’t I talking about it? Why was I feeling so conflicted? I’ve been exploring it with friends and colleagues over the past few months and have come away with some key points.
The complexities of international medical care are broad, with layers of context that evolve daily. And the people that want to “help” are everywhere. But, here is where we introduce the double-edged sword. Sometimes we, as "helpers" decide what the recipients need and we give it without considering consequences or long-term value. Who really should decide what is going to benefit those on the receiving end of the volunteer work? And, at the end of the day, after the mission is complete and the clinic or hospital doors are closed, who truly has made a lasting change and who has simply placed a band-aid on a gaping wound that will bleed through? It’s hard to tell.
It’s easy to become jaded. I don’t want to sound that way. I love my international work, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t question my own motives every time I pack my stethoscope and get on a plane. This is why I choose the groups I work with carefully. I don’t want to put the band-aid on the bullet hole; I want to help people explore why they have the bullet hole to start with and how they can avoid a similar circumstance in the future. I don’t want to show up in a foreign country and throw out medications like candy, only to leave and know that in 30 days, the situation will be much unchanged from before I arrived. The underpinning concept of successful international work, then, lies in its longevity. Relationships must be built. Epidemiology must be explored. Planning and procedures must be followed through.
There is a saying that suggests that there is no such thing as true altruism and this, in a way, relates directly to international medical work. I know that personally, I take away far more from my trips than I give, no matter how much I give of myself. Opening my eyes and my heart to new people and cultures broadens my perspectives and my horizons. Connecting with people is why I love medicine and it’s also why I love travel. Being able to combine these things and also (try to) make a difference is the dream.
On this next trip, to the Fijian islands with Flying Doctors of America (an organization I LOVE and have had amazing experiences with) I will be further exploring these concepts and personally working to make sure my work is lasting. I hope to keep you all updated as I work. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences as well – please, by all means, share with me!
With love & gratitude. <3