Today I listened to an interview on NPR’s Sunday Edition with a physician from Medecins Sans Frontiers.
Tom Krueger, a surgeon, has worked with the group on missions in the Sudan and Liberia, among other countries. Amid the interview with Liane Hanson, Krueger spoke about the struggles of the work, particularly, about how hard it is to try to explain it to friends back home after returning. “You can’t describe…. the feeling of the heat on your body, the sweat running down your back, the smell of the unwashed bodies, the closed rooms, the (lack of) circulation; the smell of your own panic when you don’t know what to do,” Krueger articulated, in a documentary film on MSF that will be previewing in thousands of theaters worldwide tomorrow. “You can’t share that stuff.
Krueger’s words touched a deep chord. This physicians grounded and humble sense of the real work was an important touchstone for me as I currently navigate a pathway towards my own involvement with a non-profit I have donated much time to the past 2 and 1/2 years. When NPR interviewer Hanson asked him about the convenient myth of the valiant physician sacrificing him/herself for the greater good of mankind, and whether it felt like that, Krueger did not run off with the opportunity for self aggrandizement. His response seems modulated by years and years in the field, in the dirt, the hot, sticky, sickly smell of underresourced clinics around the world, the sticky humidity of tropics and too many bodies pressed too close in too tight a space.
I loved hearing Kruegers’ words on the radio. They describe what it does feels like to be part of that world for long days, weeks, months at a time. It expresses that reality that doing good work in the developing world, like anywhere, is intensely more complicated than a sound bite. It means acknowledging a lot of gray areas, it means getting out of the guesthouse and romantic adventure and doing your work in often intensely uncomfortable and unclean situations, often without any recognition at all. Most of all, its not about promoting your own mythology. Instead, it tends to make you more humble everyday.
Trying to do good amid that daily reality, notes Krueger, doesn’t feel like being a part of anyone’s myth of the valiant savior. Instead, he explains, the reality you are surrounded by and making decisions within “Is a lot muddier than that. When you see the problems that these people have to contend with every day…you find a lot of these decisions to be a lot more painful than you find them in the scripted situations that we most of face, say, in hospitals in this country. “
What the work does give you, despite the doubts, the muddy areas, the discomfort, is this:
“It leaves you more dissatisfied a bit with who you are, with the culture in which you live, the medical system under which you live, the world as it is. And also- you see things with different eyes. You become a lot more invested in the world. After being in many of these places, I have to try and follow the news about what is happening, because, once you connect with the people in these places, they become a part of your life, and you worry over them.
On a one to one basis -with everybody you work with – they’re really no different from us. People hurt. People suffer. When you take care of people at times of illness like that, they’re at they’re most vulnerable. It changes you in ways that you process in an ongoing fashion from then on. “ http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121388800