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.