The first I knew about Geoff was when I was called to the Himalayan hospital, near where I was living. I found a man desperately short of breath and failing to respond to any treatment. His friends filled me in. Geoff had been determined to see the Himalayas. He never did. He had not told his agency about his poor health. And no one had apparently told him that going to a higher altitude would put him at risk.
I have valued and enjoyed my years working at InterHealth Worldwide which I helped to found. Seeing thousands of relief and development workers, missionaries, members of civil society organisations and government agencies as a medic, has given me insight into the realities of work at the front line and the health problems faced by so many. Add to that my own experience as a risk taker and optimist. I look back with astonishment at what I could have avoided by taking a few simple precautions when working in remote mountain communities, on expeditions and in refugee camps.
A few years back at InterHealth, I decided to ask two simple questions of the people I saw who had to return early because of illness or stress when working abroad: “What could you have done to prevent this illness from happening?” And then, if I didn’t get a clear answer, “What was it that you didn’t do which caused this illness to bring you home early?”
The answers were usually very clear: “The local expats told me I didn’t need to go on taking antimalarials”, “I was very tired and accidentally pricked my finger after injecting a sick patient”, “I thought for once I would eat the delicious salads my host offered me”, “Life was fine until the organisation couldn’t find a replacement for their country director, so I had to do two jobs” and “It had been a tough weekend and I had a bit more to drink than usual with my colleagues- and yes I forgot the condoms”.
I discovered at InterHealth and now at Thrive Worldwide that there is always an underlying cause behind illness abroad. And usually the cause could have been recognised and the problem prevented.
As health care workers we spend most of our time working hard at the bottom of the cliff. And that’s what we like doing and that’s what people expect us to do. But can we have just a few less ambulances at the foot of the cliff and a few more fences at the top? Can we think creatively about how to prevent people falling over the cliff in the first place?
In one of my lectures I sometimes illustrate this in a different way. I get a jug of dirty water, let it drip on the floor and then wait. Someone soon shouts out “Turn off the ... tap!”
Can we think more creatively of ways in which we can turn off the tap of ill-health for those working at the front line?
Relief and development agencies, faith- based and other civil society organisations have amazing resources, skills, passion and abilities to help bring comfort and healing to our ailing people and planet. But what is their greatest resource? The answer should be obvious - their people.
Can we make sure that working together as agencies, care providers and thought leaders, we prioritize the smartest ways to ensure that front line workers have both the best care at the bottom of the cliff and, critically, effective prevention at the top? This will benefit everyone: front line workers, chief execs, donors, reputation and, yes, even finance directors.
Next time I will tell you a story of how I greatly reduced my stress levels and health risks at an unusual dinner party.