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A moral imperative

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 16 December 2013

Anaesthetist Dr Kevin Baker has travelled the world’s war zones, patching up broken bodies and mentoring young people to do the same. It’s rewarding, life-changing work.

They say from bad things, good things can come. Dr Kevin Baker is living proof of that.

As a child in the late 1950s, he took a train into town and sneaked into a cinema to watch a movie about the Holocaust. He emerged tearful and determined to stop war.

That may have been the naive dream of a child but it sparked a lifelong commitment to making a difference in the world that has taken Dr Baker to the world’s hot spots and disaster zones, courtesy of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“My first mission with MSF was to Sri Lanka in 1997”, Dr Baker tells the MJA.

“It was very complicated. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, I guess.”

His enduring memory of that time is of treating a Tamil Tiger and a Sinhala soldier in adjoining beds and watching them reach out to hold each other’s hand.

“That was remarkable”, he said.

Dr Baker completed an engineering degree and a stint in the Army before graduating from medicine at the University of Sydney in 1976. He then qualified as an anaesthetist and completed his fellowship before following his urge to help by joining MSF.

“I waited until I had finished my fellowship in critical care because I knew those would be skills I could use”, he says.

The Sri Lanka mission was followed by missions in East Timor, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Liberia, Nigeria and Palestine. He has just returned from his second tour in civil war-torn Syria.

“We were there in November and December of last year, setting up a mobile hospital, and we went back in July and August”, he says.

Apart from resuscitating and treating patients in mobile emergency clinics, the biggest part of Dr Baker’s work involves training young people to perform the basics of emergency medicine.

“Most of the day is spent hectoring, mentoring and teaching”, he explains. “You’ve got to rely on these kids so much.”

On his first mission in Syria, Dr Baker trained a group of young women in their late teens and early 20s who wanted to be nurses. Returning this year it was heartening to see how they were coping.

“They’ve become used to large casualty influxes and have lost the hesitancy they had to start with. Most of the time they finish their shift at the hospital and then go to the frontline, which is only a few kilometres away, and do what they can there to resuscitate and help.

“I’ve never been really scared, but you live in a degree of high anxiety all the time”, he says. “And all the time you’re trying to portray calmness, while you just want to weep.”

There is a price to pay for the sense of fulfilment he gets from helping, however.

Dr Baker tells a story of sitting in the sun in Syria, teaching some young nurses and ducking for cover every time someone yelled: “Here comes the barrel”.

The “barrels” were 44-gallon drums packed with TNT and metal shrapnel, dropped from thousands of metres by bombers.

“I watched a boy lose a foot when a spanner came out of one of those things”, he remembers.

Although never physically injured during his MSF missions, Dr Baker acknowledges the realities of working in war zones.

“I think I’ve had post-traumatic stress disorder”, he admits.

Finding the body of a guerrilla who was a close friend while working in East Timor in 1997 sparked a crisis for Dr Baker.

“I couldn’t stop crying”, he says. “I get a tightening in my chest just thinking about it even now.

“After 2000, my wife Liz said ‘this can’t go on’ and I was on antidepressants for about six months.”

The crying stopped but the medication had other, less positive, side effects and Dr Baker chose to go without the pharmacological help.

“I didn’t ask for post-mission psychological support from MSF, which was foolish”, he admits.

These days, the drive to volunteer is almost a compulsion for him.

“I need to do it, absolutely”, Dr Baker says. “When we’re home it eventually gets to the point where Liz says, ‘for God’s sake go and volunteer for a mission’.

“The reality is I’m just marking time when I’m not out there.”

At 67, Dr Baker believes he has another three years of volunteering with MSF in him before his body tells him to take a break.

“Everyone should think about doing something [for others]”, he says. “I believe there is a moral imperative for someone who lives in a successful society, like we do here in Australia, to go out and help others somehow.

“You’ll be changed for the better for doing it.

“The people you meet and stay in contact with on missions — your minders and translators, etc — they become part of your life. That fills me with wonderment.”

Watch Kevin Baker talk about his experiences on MSF.TV at http://www.msf.tv/#OXZo3CSyq44

  • Cate Swannell


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