Band-aid for a Broken Leg by Damien Brown
“Band-aid for a Broken Leg. Being a Doctor with No Borders and Other Ways to Stay Single” is a memoire written by a South-African/Aussie doctor who worked for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). I bumped into this book and I thought it would be an interesting read. I wasn’t mistaken.
The book describes the experiences of a young doctor who decided to “make a difference”. His first position is in a post war Angolan town, Mavinga. The rural area in which he’s stationed is a challenging workplace. The hospital doesn’t have proper equipment and necessary medication. The local staff got trained very provisionally during the war but they lack formal education. Long hours and little sleep is challenging and so is the lack of chances to get laid. The main character didn’t learn Portuguese before he went to Angola and people don’t speak English around… Despite all these trouble the mission manages to help a lot of people with their emergencies but doesn’t bring a sustainable change. When MSF disappears so do the jobs and the situation gets back to its previous state. We follow the author to two more postings to Mozambique and Sudan about which I won’t say more as it may spoil your read.
The author is quite acutely aware of MSF’s shortcomings but he also sees that a saved life is a saved life regardless of whether the country’s condition improves too. His cynicism definitely improved the way I think of him which wasn’t so partial after I learnt that he accepted position in a former Portuguese colony without speaking the language. I don’t feel he’s an entirely likeable character and you do get a feeling that his idea to work with MSF is as much driven by his need to help as it is by his need to get away. You never learn from what, though. The book is a very good account of A doctor working in difficult conditions but as for it being a memoir it lacks certain sincerity. We’re just thrown into the author’s experience as an MSF doctor without learning much about himself. It’s definitely a big weakness of the book.
The biggest advantage of it is the description of cultures so foreign to the western one. It’s not only the financial constraints that make the aid business so difficult. It’s also the attitudes deriving from often patriarchal and driven by violence cultures. Husbands and fathers there are considered masters of women. The decision whether a doctor can or cannot operate on them and what he can do is entirely dependable on the man responsible for her. A “no” even if it kills the patient is a decision that a doctor must respect. In a similar way people fight to death over cattle and to settle clan disputes filling hospitals with evitable victims. Last but not least, the superstitions prevent many from going to hospitals at all or make them postpone the proper treatment till it’s too late for help. All this is a terrifying but also fascinating glimpse to a world views that are so different to ours they seem to come from another world. One can of course label them as ignorant or even stupid but does it help anyone at all to do so?
The book is a good read and if you’re interested in this sort of accounts you’ll appreciate the humor and the stories described. I enjoyed reading it but find the book a bit sketchy. The author didn’t spend enough time time in field to give a fuller account which isn’t his fault but may leave a reader slightly disappointed.