A Glimpse into the Life of an MSF Field Worker

Dr. Marlene Lee from MSF

Dr. Marlene Lee from MSF

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (English: Doctors Without Borders), is an international humanitarian-aid non-governmental organization (NGO) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. MSF provides much needed medical care and humanitarian assistance in war-torn areas and developing countries.

In the past few years, MSF has been one of HSS’ charities of choice. We donated the proceeds of book sales to MSF’s offices in Hong Kong. HSS would like to share more about MSF and their fantastic work in the following article, featuring MSF field worker Dr Marlene Lee.


“I usually experience mixed emotions when I am in the field. Padang (Indonesia) was no exception. On one hand, it was heartbreaking to witness the destruction and devastation caused by the earthquake in Sumatra in 2009. I met many individuals who lost their entire families. Some people were still numb and in shock, others were wrecked with worry and had not eaten or slept in days. I saw homes completely leveled, some of them sitting at the bottom of ravines. I smelled decomposing bodies waiting to be retrieved from under the rubble. These experiences can be overwhelming at times. Nevertheless, field work has also given me the opportunity to bear witness to the resiliency of the human spirit. The remarkable grace, courage and determination displayed by disaster survivors as they reclaim their lives in the aftermath of a horrendous catastrophe – it’s precisely this that rekindles my faith in humankind.”

Marlene Lee, MSF Psychologist, Singapore

(Field Assignments: China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Palestine and Sudan)

Established in 1971, Médecins Sans Frontières (“MSF”)/Doctors Without Borders is an international humanitarian aid organization that provides vital medical relief to populations in trapped in crisis. MSF sends out about 33,800 doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, water-and-sanitation experts, logisticians and other aid workers every year to provide free, quality medical aid in multiple continents. MSF aid workers serve in some of the most remote and volatile places in the world in order to reach victims of conflict, natural or man-made disasters, epidemics and sexual violence, as well as those who are barred or excluded from access to medical care.

As an independent and self-directed organization, MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality. This means that the assistance MSF provides to people is based only on need; irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender, and political affiliation or social group membership. MSF’s predominant reliance on private funding ensures that we have the power to access populations without restriction, to directly control the aid we provide giving priority to those in gravest danger.

“As a humanitarian, I am used to being vulnerable. And very used to people we try to help who are far, far more vulnerable than MSF could ever be. Interestingly, it is the vulnerability of being humanitarian that provides us with protection. For MSF, this is a vulnerability rooted in our being armed with nothing more than our stethoscopes, our medicines and bandages and the commitment to deliver urgent medical services based solely on need.”

– Dr. Christoph Fournier, former MSF International President

MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 in acknowledgement of its impact, efficiency and impartiality in the delivery of vital humanitarian aid.

In 2014, with the support of our donors worldwide, MSF

  • conducted 8,250,700 outpatient consultations,
  • treated 2,114,900 malaria cases,
  • conducted 81,700 major surgical procedures under general or spinal anesthesia,
  • assisted with 194,400 births, and
  • admitted 217,900 malnourished children into therapeutic feeding programs.

For further programme information please visit http://msf-seasia.org/


A Glimpse into Life as a Field Worker

MSF relief workers are only human, and at times even the most tenacious and experienced field workers find it very emotionally draining to serve in conflict contexts. Dr. Eva Kusikova, the medical supervisor in MSF’s Kunduz Trauma Centre’s ICU had been feeling extremely tired and emotionally depressed one week in January 2012. She remembers:

It had been a really tough 3 weeks, full of difficult, critical patients… We had a multiple casualty incident with a bomb blast in town, and I had lost a patient recently – a child of just 7-9 years old. We do lose a lot of children here because they are too sick to be saved, and whilst I was continuing in my job, I was not feeling great.”

She was confiding in another member of the MSF team – Dr. Stefan Kruger, the Emergency Room (ER) physician – in the ER when a frantic woman burst in, carrying a deadly pale baby. The sight of the child depressed Eva even further – it looked dead already – but nevertheless she and Stefan immediately flew into action and began trying to resuscitate the child.

At this point, the 2 year old child was not only pale, but was not breathing and had no pulse. The doctors learnt that he had touched an electric wire and was shocked about 20 minutes ago. Eva  feared the worst: even if they managed to resuscitate him, the 20 minutes it took for him to reach the hospital during which his brain was deprived of oxygen and glucose (from lack of respiration), meant that there would be a high chance that he would have suffered some brain damage. She tried not to think about it., “First you just do, and then after is when you think”, she shared later.

Over the next 10-15 minutes Eva and Stefan defibrillated the baby boy three times, constantly massaging his chest and breathing for him. After the third attempt, a miracle happened: his little heart started beating again. But he was not out of the woods yet. The doctors transferred him to the ICU where they heavily sedated him and hooked him up to the ventilator. They did this to allow his brain to rest, and this was necessary to minimize as much as possible the risk of brain damage. Eva explained:

This is probably the only place where this treatment could have been provided in the region. We are one of only two facilities with ventilators – but more importantly we actually have staff here who know how to use the equipment”

After 24 hours, Eva removed the sedation, and a second miracle happened: the little boy woke up so quickly that the team was able to remove the ventilator – and he was not only able to breathe all by himself, he even started talking! Within a couple of hours, he was asking his father whether they could go to the bazaar; and it was hard to believe that this little boy had been the same still, pale child that had arrived just 24 hours earlier.

As he was still weak, the team kept him under observation for another 6 days, during which his parents took turns sitting by his bedside, before he was finally discharged and sent home.

For Eva, he will forever be remembered as her ‘Miracle Baby’.