My predilection for reading anything and everything I can get my hands on relating to trying to change the world generally and working for the UN or such NGOs as Medecins Sans Frontieres specifically is well known.
In fact, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures is still, some seven years after its publication, one of my favourite and most-recommended books. So it was a no-brainer that I’d be buying Australian doctor Damien Brown’s Band-Aid For A Broken Leg as soon as I heard about it and my internet connection would allow. And that it’d be going straight to the top of my reading selection list.
I spent the weekend racing through Brown’s book, worried at first that I was going to judge it too harshly by the Emergency Sex benchmark and worried later that I was enjoying it too much and reading it far too fast. Suffice to say I’m giving Brown’s book double thumbs up. It’s a no-holds-barred, firmly-tongue-in-cheek tale charting the drive to help and the obstacles to overcome to do so.
Brown’s first placement is in Angola, a country infamous for its landmines and in which the famous Princess Diana was photographed inspecting the demining programs. It’s a region the Portuguese colonists aptly named, he writes, O Fim do Mundo: The Edge of the World. It’s one too that attracts five kinds of people: Medics, Missionaries, Mercenaries, Misfits, and Madmen. Brown counts himself the medic and hopes not to count himself the others.
It’s in Angola (and later Mozambique and Sudan) that his idealism is tested and tempered by difficult working conditions and difficult staff. Which of course yield good stories and good humour. Not the least of those is, as the book’s subtitle ‘Being A Doctor With No Borders (And Other Ways To Stay Single)’ suggests, his self-deprecating look at his lack of a love life while there:
‘Hey Damien,’ calls Tim.
He sounds like he’s in the office, next to the shower at the hospital end of our compound [where the communal computer and internet connection is].
‘Still in bed,’ I call back.
‘YOU HAVE AN EMAIL FROM SOMEONE NAMED ANNA ON HERE,’ he shouts.
‘THANKS.’ I’ll read it later, I decide. She’s an old university friend.
‘I DON’T REMEMBER YOU TELLING US ABOUT AN ANNA,’ he says, and now the door on the other side of my bedroom swings open again.
‘Anna?’ asks Pascal. ‘You definitely did not mention Anna. TIM—IS HE KEEPING THINGS FROM US?’
That thing about living together? Yet again, any notions of privacy are shattered.
‘AND YOU HAVE ONE FROM A NICOLLE,’ calls Tim. ‘JESUS, WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING ON THE INTERNET, NOVO DOCTOR?’
‘SHE’S MY SISTER!’ I shout back.
‘IF YOU SAY SO. PASCAL AND ANDREA, A FEW HERE FOR YOU. AND MERDA! DAMIEN—ANOTHER ONE FROM THE EX! DID THIS THING NOT END?’
That humour’s offset, of course, by the bleaker aspects of the work, including the inescapable sadness of the deaths of patients from illnesses that are preventable and treatable:
Of the six million children who won’t survive this year, most will succumb to one of six things: poor nutrition, pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles, or a lack of basic neonatal and maternal health care. None of it is rocket science—or expensive.
Then there’s the statement from a nine-year-old orphan who was interviewed during her treatment for malnutrition: ‘My family is dead. I ate sand. What will I do now?’ It haunted Brown enough to warrant including it in the book and it’s haunting me now.
Towards the end of the book Brown, at the end of his tether, is equal parts saddened and maddened by the prevalence guns and violence in Sudan. It’s a country formerly torn apart by civil war that continues to be torn apart in supposedly peaceful times by gunfights and retribution:
Another group of armed men passes. Three this time, scowling, no uniforms but with AK47s strapped across a shoulder, and as they look over I both cringe with unease and seethe with anger. They’re like belligerent teenagers with something to prove, these guys, answering to no one and acting up—albeit with guns. […] Have they not had enough? After thirty-nine years of war, wouldn’t they just have flung their guns into the river at the first opportunity? Yelled, ‘Ha, we’re done! We survived! Take these shitty things back!’
Like Emergency Sex before it, Band-Aid For A Broken Leg wrestles with the role people and aid organisations can and should play in trying to soothe long-running, fraught culturally and historically created issues. And the effect it has on them.
… I wonder too what happens if you do this often enough, if you spend year after year in the field, repeatedly living its unbeatable highs and unrivalled lows. Does your emotional barometer simply reset itself? Is it irreversible? Is there a line you cross, beyond which a ‘normal’ life at becomes impossible? When you have to return to the field, simply because you don’t experience things to the same degree, for better or worse, back home? Like a Disaster Gypsy, maybe, just floating from one international crisis to the next … I worry that’s where I’m heading.
Later he asks himself:
So, is there really any point to this line of work? Is there any lasting benefit to the people it tries to help? Or does the aid industry just bumble on blindly, patting itself on the back for ‘at least trying’, all the while perpetuating its own existence? I wasn’t so sure anymore when I got back.
Brown makes it clear from the opening page that he’s levelling criticism at no one in particular:
… I hope this book will be seen neither as a specific endorsement of any one organisation, nor as a rebuke, but rather as what it was intended to be—a story about people, and of the difficult conditions they happen to live in.
That’s what he achieves, highlighting the myriad difficulties and conveying them in an entirely readable, personable, frankly entertaining tale I finished reading all too quickly. Thankfully Brown includes a list of further reading at the book’s end, which I’ll be tackling in coming months.
Worth noting, though, is that Brown actually spent a bunch of time working in Thailand and some in Peru too—he himself acknowledges that Thailand warrants a book of its own. My hope is that he sets about writing it soon—I’m keen to read it.