Review: Band-Aid for a Broken Leg by Damien Brown

It hasn’t been a great week at Charming HQ thanks to the invasion of the sinus snatchers. My usually spotless home and seamless project management of the household (cough) have slipped a little, and a whole lot of general crankiness has ensued.  Thank goodness I had Damien Brown’s Band-Aid for a Broken Leg as my reading companion. This book about a young volunteer doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) made me thankful for just about every facet of my life: thankful I live in an affluent, peaceful country; thankful my children and I only have colds and not malaria, or TB, or HIV; and thankful that if one of us did, heaven forbid, get really sick we wouldn’t have to walk for two days to get to the nearest medical centre.  It’s an excellent tonic if you’re having one of those ‘first world problems’ kind of weeks.  Fortunately it is also a rollicking good read, never dry or melodramatic, about parts of the world that most of us will only ever see on the evening news.

Brown strikes just the right tone with this book – steering away from the bleeding heart imagery or the political cynicism that often punctuates books on the topic of Third World aid. Instead, he shares anecdotes about the people he encounters on his travels, and lets their stories allude to the chaos of the social and political environments they inhabit. Brown feels he is well prepared for this first MSF stint in Angola (later followed by Mozambique and South Sudan).  He spent his early life in South Africa, has done quite a bit of travelling and studied tropical diseases as a medical specialism.  He soon realises though that nothing could have prepared him for the absurdity of the situations he encounters. His self-confessed naivety makes him an excellent tour guide in this environment where poverty, disorder and diverse cultural traditions force the volunteers to throw any preconceptions about the ‘right way’ to do things out the window. As a health professional, Brown is matter-of-fact in his descriptions of ailments and injuries, though he never stops being surprised by the circumstances of their creation; they simply don’t teach you much about leopard attacks and landmines at your average Aussie medical school.

When Brown arrives in Angola, he finds himself in an isolated outpost of mud huts, surrounded by landmines, and the hospital (for which he will be the only doctor) is full of patients with conditions he has never encountered.  His journey begs many questions about the struggle of organisations like MSF to manage their personnel: it can be difficult to attract experienced doctors to the dangerous and lonely environment, which means young doctors are frequently asked to perform operations, for example, which they would not be qualified to perform in Australia.  What’s more, Brown finds himself operating with ad hoc surgical tools, sterilized by fire, in makeshift wards filled with the neighbours and family members of the sick, offering ‘intensive care’ in name only.   Brown deftly relates the illogicality of such situations without particular criticism of any government or organisation. He is well aware of the myriad ethical issues facing NGOs and their volunteers (should they even be there? can’t they do more? will there be any long term change?) but concludes that on a day to day basis, there is simply a job to be done.  In these circumstances, MSF and its volunteers need to force themselves to “bite off only what they can chew”.

And the circumstances make for a fascinating read.  Like any emergency department, these hospitals are full of characters. There are tragic cases, against which the doctors must steel their emotions, as well as time wasting malingerers who hang around for the food and the company.  At every turn, Brown is challenged by cultural differences.  He does not speak any of the local languages and therefore relies on clunky translation. He is frequently confronted by inexplicable tribal beliefs which oppose the help he would like to offer; such as a clan who forbids the amputation of a limb on a man who will surely die without it,  or a husband who will not agree to his wife’s blood transfusion because her death is “God’s will”.  If I have any criticism of this book it is that I found the relentless battles of the medicos with translation and miscommunication somewhat repetitive – but if I felt frustrated as a reader it is no doubt barely scratching the surface of the frustration felt by the doctors and patients, and the book makes that abundantly clear.

Band-aid for a Broken Leg is in many ways a humorous travel narrative, punctuated with incidents that prove reality can be more heart-breaking, suspenseful and uplifting than the most outlandish of Hollywood movies. It is a respectful, well-written and well-researched tale (references included at the back!) that gave me a deeper understanding of the work of humanitarian aid groups, without preaching any particular agenda.  My kids will be getting an extended lecture on appreciating their dinners tonight!

Thanks to Allen & Unwin I have 5 e-copies of this amazing book to give away!  Please follow This Charming Mum (by email, Facebook or Twitter, if you haven’t already) then be one of the first 5 to write ‘Pick Me!’ in the comments area below.  COMPETITION NOW CLOSED.  


15 comments for “Review: Band-Aid for a Broken Leg by Damien Brown

  1. Robyn Cain
    July 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    The title would not have grabbed me, but you have changed my mind with the great description. I will now make it my next book to buy. It sounds fascinating.

  2. Amanda
    July 16, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Pick me! I always want to read what you review! There seems merit in all 🙂 thanks!

    • This Charming Mum
      July 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      Thanks Amanda. All the books are gone this time, but I’ll have another giveaway later in the week. Thanks for reading x

  3. This Charming Mum
    July 14, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Well, that was quick! Tracey, Lee, Renay, Monique and Michelle – the books are all yours. I’ll be in touch soon. Don’t forget you can ‘like’ the blog on Facebook, ‘follow’ on Twitter or subscribe by email to get all the latest updates. I’ll have another 5 book give away next week! Thanks for entering 🙂

  4. Michelle Ballinger
    July 14, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Would love to immerse myself in a wonderful book. Thanks for the opportunity!

    • This Charming Mum
      July 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

      My pleasure Michelle. Hope you enjoy it!

  5. Monique O'Keeffe
    July 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Another book to add to my list of must reads! Pick me please 🙂

    • This Charming Mum
      July 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

      I have quite a pile of those too! Hope you enjoy this one. Thanks for entering. x

  6. July 13, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Gosh, I’ve been on the market for a good book for a little while now (big confession – I haven’t read anything except childrens books and blogs since my youngest was born 10 months ago) *hangs head in shame* lol

    • This Charming Mum
      July 14, 2012 at 10:54 am

      That’s exactly why I started this blog Renay. It forces me to read! It’s hard when the kids are little though – all you want to do is fall in a heap once you actually get time to yourself. Hopefully this book might kick start your reading habits again 😉 Thanks for entering.

  7. Lee
    July 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Sounds interesting! Yes please, I’d love to win a copy 🙂

    • This Charming Mum
      July 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

      It is a really good read Lee. Hope you enjoy it!

  8. Tracey Mason
    July 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Please pick me!

    This book is a must read for me, want to work with MSF. Amazing work!

    • This Charming Mum
      July 14, 2012 at 10:56 am

      They certainly do amazing work. Interesting too that at the end of the book (spoiler alert) he ends up working in the NT and finding a lot of similar problems, so I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to some of that with your regional QLD experiences. You might understand the medical jargon more than me too! Hope you enjoy the read x

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