Archive | May, 2007

Medicins Sans Frontieres: Doctor Soong’s speech

31 May

Our school invited a doctor named Raymond Soong who had participated in ‘Medicins sans frontieres’ (Doctors without borders) to give a speech this Saturday. He was inspired to participate after he had viewed a MSF photo show in Taipei and encountered doctors from the organization while he was in Tibet. After graduating from medical school, he went on to get two years residency to build up on experience and went to Liverpool to take courses in tropical diseases to qualify for participating in MSF mission.
In his speech he mentioned how the AIDS problem exacerbates a country’s economical problems and creates a vicious cycle. When the life expectancy in a country goes from an average of 48 to 25, it spells disaster for the country. Parents don’t get to see their children grow up, and the working class is unable to form due to the lack of adults. Thus, any sort of economical growth is hindered. Having access to medicine would extend their lives by at least a decade, which would allow them to see their children to adulthood and work for an extra ten years. But they usually only earn one dollar a day and the medicine has to be taken daily and continually – costing more than a dollar for each day. This becomes a no decision problem. They can’t afford the medicine when they can’t buy food to survive. That’s why there have been NPOs lobbying medicine companies to relinquish their patents and/or lower the cost of AIDS medicine.
Though the medicine for Tuberculosis is less expensive and accessible, the decision for doctors in remote areas to send Tuberculosis patients to city Tuberculosis centers for treatments is still a no decision. The doctor can’t send the patient to the city for treatment because Tuberculosis medicines have to be taken continually for about six months for total recovery. If the medicine is stopped for a while, the disease isn’t eradicated and may flair up in a form that has developed resistance to the current drug. This form of tuberculosis may spread in the patient’s hometown and by the time a Tuberculosis center is set up near the area it may be impossible to cure. That is the problem that currently plagues Russia’s Tuberculosis victims. Nonprofit organizations had set up shop in Russia when they were finally allowed by the government to provide medicine for Tuberculosis patients. Due to political problems they were forced to abandon their project midway, which resulted in a large number of patients with drug resistant bacteria. In Liberia, the interruption is usually caused by the fact that the patient cannot support himself in the city. Jobs are difficult to find in the city, even for healthy individuals. So doctors are faced with the difficult decision of not sending the patients for treatment for fear of the long-term consequences it may have on the Tuberculosis population.
Doctor Soong stresses how we humans have such incredibly wonderful possibilities, which can often be hindered by how we often set limitations for ourselves. He says that if we truly desire to do something, we would try to surmount all obstacles in order to gain our heart’s desire. We often give ourselves excuses. But if something wants to be done, then we must set out now. Ask the practical questions – why, what, when, where, and how – instead of dwelling on the difficulties that may arise.
Doctor Soong also introduced a novel concept: the fact that aid to Africa cannot simply be about money. He says that though the people need the money, they often detest the givers. Giving has to have a quality of respect – the giver respects the receiver and the receiver respects the giver. So in our care for Africa we must not simply dispense our duty by giving them charity. Attitude matters. This is a delicate and important issue when considering aid.
Though Doctor Soong says that giving is a wonderful joy, there are still many difficulties in the task as a Doctor of MSF, first of all is the disparity between ideals and facts. Despite how empowering such an ideal may be, it is drudging, difficult, extremely soul tiring work… facing the lack of resources and hands, the endless over-surge of patients and the sense that one’s work has not made as much impact as wished for. A doctor at MSF once joked that the best thing a doctor can do before he left is not to make things worse than they are. The work is important, it saves lives, but it is still very soul tiring. That is why MSF doctors usually do not stay in a mission above a year. After a year it often becomes routine, and if the doctor loses passion for the job not only is it bleak for the doctor but does no good for the patients as well. Doctor Soong went through extremely difficult lows during his time there and almost considered quitting at a time. However, he still extended his three month trial period to a ten month mission. He says that the idea of going back to do the work is still appealing. But when he thinks about it doing it throughout his life may soon lose its appeal. He believes that it will be more fulfilling if he can inspire others to follow him the next time he goes back. And that is what he has been doing upon his return to Taiwan – making speeches and showing pictures of his trip to inspire the people in Taiwan to help those in countries less privileged than ours.
Finally he encouraged us to travel widely, best of all solo, and by doing so learn how to solve problems independently. He says that we should start from the easier countries, like Japan or Western Europe, and then gradually work into the more remote and difficult places, like India and Tibet.
Overall his speech tells us that it is important to help, but we must follow our heart in this matter. Only if we are willing to give will the giving be meaningful.

MSF website: http://www.msf.org.au/index.shtml

Latest on AIDS medicine crisis by MSF: http://www.msf.org.au/stories/twfeature/2007/163-twf.shtml

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