‘I’m looking forward to being at work this Christmas’

MSF staff overseas share stories of how they will spend their Christmas this year


Whether they are spending Christmas in Kashmir, Afghanistan or Cork, staff at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical humanitarian organisation, know how fortunate they are. This year some will make it home, some will not – but they will all make the best of it.

Here they tell us how they will spend this Christmas.

Dr Aidan Magee – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

An anaesthetist on assignment in Walikale, Dr Magee is part of one of MSF’s 11 teams operating in 13 regions of the country. In the DRC, which is 30 times the size of Ireland, poor infrastructure and inadequate health services mean that tens of thousands of people are regularly affected by outbreaks and health emergencies.

“I’m hoping to get home a few days before Christmas after finishing my assignment. So Christmas Day will be spent in my parents’ house in Dublin after a swim in the Forty Foot – and all our other family traditions. I’ll definitely be thinking of all my friends and colleagues here who will be spending Christmas a long way from home!

“It’s often the small things that are the most shocking here. Or more precisely, the small things that become big in the absence of easy access to medical care. Like the young woman, five months pregnant, who almost didn’t survive a simple nosebleed. And the young boy who came to the hospital four years after breaking his forearm, with the bone still visibly protruding.

“Our national staff colleagues work hard in challenging circumstances and with very limited resources. The enthusiasm of the staff at regular training sessions organised by the MSF medical team is always encouraging. And, since the town of Walikale is usually stable, we are often shielded from the unrest and violence that exists just miles from where we are based.”

Aoife Ní Mhurchú – Afghanistan

The nurse from Cork is on her second assignment with MSF. Her role involves travelling to a number of locations in Helmand province to provide care for people affected by gender-based violence.

“We are working very hard here and Christmas can sometimes seem like a distant concept. The countdown, all the same, appears to have begun.

“I know I am one of the lucky ones because I get to go home on a break for Christmas. Unbeknownst to the MSF team, I have hidden some gifts from Ireland around the compound for them to enjoy after I leave. As I sit around the table with my family in Cork on Christmas Day, I will take the time to think of my team, as I imagine the gifts being discovered and enjoyed by this very special group of people over 8,000km away.”

Dr Laura Heavey – Borno State, Nigeria

The paediatrician from Co Galway is in northeastern Nigeria where a conflict between state forces and Boko Haram is causing a major humanitarian disaster. Some two million people are displaced inside Borno State and malnutrition rates in some locations are three times higher than the emergency threshold. Dr Heavey works in a 100-bed inpatient hospital with a focus on children.

“Last year I worked with malnourished children in South Sudan and from my experience there I know that if children above five are becoming malnourished, things are really bad. Older children usually have more stores and are better able to tolerate periods without food than younger children.

“So it’s an indication as to how severe things are in Borno State, that older children who usually have better immune systems are getting sick. It’s really challenging because without adequate nutrition, the immune system doesn’t function normally. Malnourished children will become a lot more unwell, and can even die, from common infections like diarrhoea and pneumonia, that a well-nourished child could fight off.

Dr Niamh Allen – Sierra Leone

Two years ago, Dr Allen from Blackrock, Co Dublin, worked in Sierra Leone at the height of the Ebola crisis. Now she is back to help those trying to rebuild a health system decimated during the Ebola outbreak and by years of civil war before that.

“This is my fifth assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières. I have previously been in DRC, Syria, South Sudan and in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. So it is really great to be back here when Sierra Leone is getting back on its feet after that crisis and to work with some amazing people who lived through those awful months and even some who survived Ebola.

“I am working in Magburaka Government Hospital where we are in partnership with the ministry of health to try to improve access to healthcare and quality of healthcare in the district, especially for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and children.

“I’ll be at work for Christmas! But I am looking forward to that. The paediatric ward is mostly a very uplifting place to be, where mothers help each other out, laugh together, eat together and generally support each other – and the kids who get better start to smile and then play, and you know they’re out of the woods.”

John Canty - Kashmir

The human resource and finance administrator from Co Cork lives on the job while working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Kashmir.

“My morning commute is down one flight of stairs and I haven’t been late for work yet. Well, we are pretty much always at work. Our office is on the ground floor of our compound and the living quarters are upstairs. I am also living and working with my international staff work colleagues. I am lucky though as we get on really well.

“This Christmas I will remain in Kashmir. Our project co-ordinator from Germany has promised to make me some Christmas dinner. I doubt we will be able to find turkey around here. If I was at home for Christmas, it would be meeting friends in Cork, Innishannon, Dublin or wherever the fun might be. Having a Christmas morning swim in Coolmain. Overdosing on watching soccer. Climbing Carrauntoohill.”

Médecins Sans Frontières is an independent, international medical humanitarian organisation that provides healthcare to people affected by war, conflict, natural and manmade disasters and delivers emergency aid in nearly 70 countries worldwide. Since MSF opened an office in Dublin in 2006, Irish doctors, nurses, surgeons and logisticians have been sent on more than 300 assignments. With independent donations, it can quickly deploy skilled teams to the front lines of wars, disasters and epidemics while also retaining capacity to respond to forgotten crises. For more see msf.ie

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