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The Good Doctor

Montreal’s Dr. Joanne Liu is the new president for Médecins sans Frontières

By Sylvie Arvanitakis

If you drew a line tracking Dr. Joanne Liu’s journey around the globe with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), the line would be long, winding and eventually lead to the medical humanitarian organization’s headquarters in Geneva. During just the last week of September, Dr. Liu flew across the Atlantic to become MSF’s new international president—only the second Canadian in MSF’s history. But first, she had a stopover in Calgary where she received the Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

The appointment and the accolades are no surprise considering the fact that Dr. Liu has wanted to work hard at making the world a better place since early adolescence. Reading Et la paix dans le monde, Docteur?, a physician’s account of working with MSF during the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, sparked the dream. “This doctor was all by himself in the lonely mountains and this experience had made him feel useful. I thought this was the kind of meaning I’d like to have in my life,” says Dr. Liu.

After her first year in Cegep, an exchange program to Mali convinced her she wanted to be a doctor who worked with MSF wherever there was an overwhelming medical need. The McGill University trained physician completed her residency in pediatrics to acquire skills she describes as “exportable,” followed by a pediatric emergency fellowship to prepare herself for working in highly volatile zones.

As the sole physician for 50,000 Malian refugees on her first MSF mission to Mauritania in 1996, she had to learn how to practice medicine in the middle of a desert without running water or electricity, and limited medical supplies. The experience, she says, made her a better clinician but adds that although MSF is always looking for volunteers, it may not be a good fit for everyone. “There’s nothing romantic about doing a mission overseas, so you need to be clear on your motivations to do this.”

Dr. Liu has honed her skills on over 20 subsequent missions with MSF, taking her to turbulent parts of the world like Haiti where she assisted people affected by the cholera epidemic and the 2010 earthquake; and Indonesia to treat survivors of the 2004 tsunami; or Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region to treat patients suffering from malnourishment and whatever else arises when a large population is displaced.

During her hands-on medical work, she spent three years as an MSF Program Manager in Paris, overseeing missions in Central Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. She was president of MSF Canada from 2004 to 2009. She also co-created an innovative telemedicine project that took advantage of different time zones to connect MSF physicians in 150 remote sites with a collective of over 300 specialists worldwide. “If you want to help, you can now do it from your living room,” she explains. Dr. Liu also envisions an eventual decrease in maternal mortality rates while providing better treatment for chronic illnesses like multi-drugresistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is the ability to provide direct medical care to our beneficiaries,” says Liu as she takes the reins of an organization with a staff of 30,000 people spread across 70 countries during an era when aid workers are increasingly targeted. Just last August, MSF closed operations in Somalia after 22 years. It could no longer endure attacks on its staff members, vehicles and facilities. Sixteen MSF workers were killed since the start of the civil war.

Through an awareness campaign for medical care under fire, Liu is hopeful MSF can bring about change on the ground and increase its operations in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, where the needs still far outweigh the international response. “There is a lot of media coverage on the violence but we forget about the human beings that are suffering. If we are citizens of the world, we need to help.”

It’s easy to see why Dr. Liu is continually recognized among her peers for compassion and unwavering determination in the fight against human suffering, but the good doctor offers a humble perspective on courage. “As a volunteer, my living conditions are 100 times better than those of my patients,” she says. “The real heroes are the people who have been through 15 years of civil war and believe the next day will be better.”

Winter 2014, Vol 6 N°1

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