Band-Aid for a Broken Legby Damien Brown Published 01 Jul 2012
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|Publisher||Allen & Unwin Australia|
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A powerful, surprisingly funny, and ultimately uplifting account of life on the medical front line, and a moving testimony of the work done by Medecins Sans Frontieres
Damien Brown, a young doctor, thinks he's ready when he arrives for his first posting with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Africa. But the town he's sent to is an isolated outpost of mud huts, surrounded by landmines; the hospital, for which he's to be the only doctor, is filled with malnourished children and conditions he's never seen; and the health workers—Angolan war veterans twice his age who speak no English—walk out on him following an altercation on his first shift. In the months that follow, Damien confronts these challenges all the while dealing with the social absurdities of living with only three other volunteers for company. The medical calamities pile up—including a leopard attack, a landmine explosion, and having to perform surgery using tools cleaned on the fire—but it's through Damien's evolving friendships with the local people that his passion for the work grows. This heartbreaking and honest account of life on the medical front line in Angola, Mozambique, and South Sudan is a moving testimony of the work done by medical humanitarian groups and the extraordinary and sometimes eccentric people who work for them.
"Band-Aid for a Broken Leg" Reviews
Band-Aid for a Broken Leg tells the moving story of MSF volunteer Damien Brown as he works in Angola, Mozambique, and South Sudan, all the while learning what it truly means to be an aid worker.
Though Brown is not an extraordinary author (though more than competent), the book still managed to move its way up to my favourites shelf. The brilliance of this book lies in the touching tales told. In many ways, this is not Brown's story; it's the story of all the patients he's helped (and lost).
Though the conditions in these countries are well known, Brown recounts events that would nonetheless surprise the reader. From working in an area where conflict can erupt at any second, to losing a severely malnourished child, Brown's metal and adaptability were tested quite vigorously. In many cases his patience was tested as well, having to remind himself (often) that he comes from a very different culture and that his middle-class-Australian view does not form an adequate scope for understanding the mentality of the locals.
The different African lifestyles are beautifully described, as are the people who Brown came across (whether they'r expats or locals). The day to day routines, along with many emergencies, are aptly presented without boring the reader. One particular aspect that I enjoyed were the awkward moments in surgeries (performed only in urgent times) which very often left Damien dumbstruck. Entire chapters in this book can be boiled down to stories of love, beauty, and resilience.
Of course as might be expected, the book also contains a lot of tragedy. As the reader, I risked getting attached to some of Damian's patients; their individual quirks (Brown received two marriage proposals!) rendered them quite dear to me as I looked forward to finding how they fared. Unfortunately, many of them died after having known nothing but poverty and war. This was emotionally difficult for me because I was keenly aware that this is not fiction; those are real people in real situations. If nothing else, this book has managed to put my problems into perspective and has enhanced my gratitude for what I have.
My advice is this: read this book. You won't regret it.
A heart-breaking memoir, that also manages to be heart-warming and rather sobering. I admire Damien - for going places I would not dare to tread and daring to make a difference - no matter how slim. He tells his experiences with a certain amount of wry humour and does not dwell on the grief, although of that there is plenty. The political situation in many of the African countries is a worrying one. I devoured this book, and at times I laughed, other times I just wanted to cry, but one thing I took away from it is how lucky I am - to be born in a "western" country where "luxuries" such as nutritious food and safe water can be taken for granted and where I am unlikely to step on a landmine or get caught in the gunfire of inter-tribal warfare.
But it is the story of the people that I love the most - the little boy with the beads, the children who make a model village from clay, the various native nurses and doctors with their little quirks and ideas. Brown does not view them as victims, and they do not see themselves that way, and one cannot help but feel humbled that we "first worlders" feel we need so much, when these people are happy with so little and the importance of family, friends and fun exceeds the need for big shiny "toys".
The title of the book pretty much sums up beautifully the nature of the work that Dr.Damien Brown does in Africa as a volunteer doctor with MSF - Doctors without Borders. It is a book that evokes multiple emotions in you as you read it - at times breaking your heart, at times making you laugh, at times feeling despondent about Africa and volunteer work, at times feeling inspired, at times completely upbeat and optimistic about the future. The thing that strikes me most about the author is his honesty and openness in evaluating his time as a doctor with MSF in Africa and never losing his perspective even under trying and testing conditions. The book also brings out the essential goodness of the 'ordinary man' in the street, or 'hospital' so to speak.
Dr.Damien Brown, as a young 29-year old from Australia, offers himself as a volunteer doctor to serve in Angloa with MSF. He is sent as the only 'resident doctor' to Mavinga, an outpost in SE Angola consisting of only mud huts in an area surrounded by scores of landmines - remnants of a long civil war. He has for company three other expatriate medical practitioners and a few Angolan health workers, who are actually veterans of the long civil war. Dr.Brown goes in there speaking little Portuguese, the local language. His six-month stint, to say the least, was eventful. He attends to a man mauled by a leopard, wrestles with cultural conflict with his Angolan health workers,
treats severely malnourished children, assists a surgery by 'cleaning' the instruments by holding them up to the fire, argues with relatives of patients who insist on their patient being 'operated upon' because that is what is seen as the 'Rolls Royce' of medical care, is shocked by his own Angolan colleague who, after having cut open the stomach of a patient, challenges Dr.Brown to decide as to which organ to remove......
However, it is not all gloom and disease and death either. The lighter side of life in Mavinga is brought out in the context of the four expatriate volunteer workers - three of them men and one , a blonde young German woman named Andrea. Unfortunately for DR.Brown and Pascal and Tim, she happens to be a born-again Christian and so any casual fling was out of the question. The narrative also spells out in the end that many aid workers eventually end up being partners or spouses of other aid workers. Dr.Brown humorously refers to it as 'double the baggage in one relationship'!
In the author's own words, his Angolan experience is summed up as follows:
" ...the reality of medicine in developing countries is that people die of preventable conditions that are easy to treat or even prevent. Of the millions of children who won't survive the year, most will succumb to one of six things : poor nutrition, pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles or lack of basic neonatal or maternal health care, all of which are easily managed or prevented. ".
As for his own time in Mavinga, it is " a confusing, intoxicating, frustrating, heartbreaking, inspiring, disillusioning and life-affirming blend of all the best and worst things. Of Angolans, he says, "...no one mopes, or says Poor us. They just get on with it".
After six months in Angola, he returns home to Melbourne, Australia, but feels alienated by the trivialities of the 'problems' in the Australian context of total security and affluence. His mother talks about an anxiety disorder that the family dog is undergoing and the need for anxiety pills for the dog; at the supermarket, he watches an overweight kid throwing a tantrum because his mom bought him 'that' chocolate bar instead of the twenty other varieties he wanted....It is all too much to handle for Dr.Brown and he takes off again to Africa with MSF to regain his balance.
He serves a short stint in Mozambique and then six more months in Nasir, South Sudan - a place as far off from civilization as one would want. In Nasir, in addition to the expected malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria, he deals with clans of people with gunshot wounds in the fight for 'cattle' which is often valued more than human lives in Nasir. As if this is not enough, he finds himself in a heartbreaking situation where a dying pregnant woman needs to be operated upon urgently but her husband forbids it by refusing permission - result of a strong patriarchal culture where even the woman's life is in the hands of her husband. This was the last straw on Dr.Brown's back and he decides to return home to Australia.
In the final chapter, the author asks the question," ...So, is there really any point to this line of work? Is there any lasting benefit to the people that MSF 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?' Dr.Brown resolves this dilemma in the following words:
My head says it is futile. My heart knows differently. I hope to be in the field again sometime soon.
The book is simply brilliant.
I'll admit to buying this - and I'm someone who doesn't buy books. It was second hand.
A great hook of a title, and it's about a Melborune doctor who decides to work for Medecins Sans Frontiers (and, until he doesn't, but before you get all 'help people in your OWN country, wait til the end).
He was a great author. I want to meet him. He also mentions how the life made him very and who can resist a single doctor. Well I wouldn't resist one, but I wouldn't handle Angola or South Sudan or latrines like he did. I felt it was very honest - there was no bravado. He cried. It got too much for him. There was no cause or campaign he pleadingly asked people to donate to. Seriously, I'd like to meet him...
And Dad saw the title and wanted to read it, and another friend sponsors MSF, so I'll pass it along to him
In Australia, Medicare subsidises doctor visits, medicines and hospital care and access to quality health care is something many of us take for granted. Band-Aid for a Broken Leg is fascinating true account from Dr Damien Brown of his time as a volunteer with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)organisation. In Angola, Mozambique and South Sudan, he is faced with the reality of medical care in isolated regions beseiged by war, in fighting and political indifference.
Born in South Africa, Damien Brown emigrated with his family to Australia as a child. After completing his medical training in Australia, he studied in Peru for a diploma in tropical medicine and then volunteered at a clinic in Thailand. He applied to the MSF and was offered a position in Angola an area of Africa still recovering from a 27 year long civil war.
Mavinga, a small township near the border of Namibia, and outlying areas, rely on the MSF for all aspects of health care. Damien describes the primitive conditions of the hospital surrounded by leftover landmines, staffed by a handful of expat's and semi-trained locals. The hospital treats hundreds of patients each day for conditions ranging from severe malnutrition and malaria to grenade wounds. While the conditions sound miserable, there is no modern plumbing and the generator is temperamental, Damien accepts the circumstances with remarkably good grace. He writes of the challenges of treating patients with limited resources, many of whom present when it is almost too late. There are cultural differences to work through, he knows little of the language and the hours are long and punishing, yet he takes solace in even the smallest victories and finds humour where he can.
After six months Damien returns home to Melbourne but finds it difficult to settle back into life and finds himself reapplying to the MSF. He is diverted from his first choice of posting after an outbreak of fighting in Somalia and winds up in Mozambique assisting with a vaccination program before being sent to Sudan.
Damien's experience in Sudan is not dissimilar to that of Mavinga, the hospital is busy and crowded and patient care challenging. But here gun battles erupt nearby, death seems to be more frequent and the stress of the circumstances gets to him. After six months he heads back to Australia wondering how much good he did. Damien's reflections on his experiences are thoughtful and make it clear answers are not easy to come by.
Damien Brown's style of writing is confident and accessible and I am glad he shared some photos of his time in Mavinga and Nasir within the book. I can't express how much I admire his willingness to share his skills with those who need them and his choice to confront the challenges of being a doctor with the MSF. I have no idea how the man is still single!
Band-Aid for a Broken Leg is a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, glimpse of Africa and the challenges of one doctor to provide medical care for it's poorest communities in difficult circumstances. Fascinating and thought provoking I happily recommend it to travelers, those interested in volunteering overseas and anyone who needs some perspective on their latest first world crisis.
Fascinating memoir by Aussie doctor working in remote outposts in Angola, Somalia, Mozambique & Sudan with Medecins Sans Frontieres.