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Doctors Without Borders in need of volunteers

BY HEIDI ULRICHSEN At an age when most doctors would rather be relaxing on the golf course or spending time with their grandkids than working, 79-year-old Dr.
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Rink De Lange and his wife, Leanne Olson, have been on many Doctors Without Borders missions. By Heidi Ulrichsen.

BY HEIDI ULRICHSEN

At an age when most doctors would rather be relaxing on the golf course or spending time with their grandkids than working, 79-year-old Dr. Asit Mitra is preparing for his third mission with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

He went to Liberia for six months in 2005 and the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province of Sumatra for three months earlier this year. He's scheduled to leave on another mission in January, although the location hasn't been finalized yet. Mitra said he'll continue working for the organization until his health gives out.

“Is playing golf more challenging than working in a country where they need help? No. I don't see anything wrong with me working now. It's my choice,” he said. “I understand a lot of people say I'm crazy. So what? Let them think that.”

Mitra, a semi-retired orthopedic surgeon who has worked in Greater Sudbury for 30 years, made a presentation about his work with Doctors Without Borders in front of an audience of about 50 people in a packed meeting room at the main library branch Thursday night.

The event was part of an 11-city tour of Northern Ontario and Manitoba to recruit volunteers and inform people about Doctors Without Borders.

The organization was started in 1971 by a small group of French doctors and journalists who had worked in Biafra, a short-lived secessionist state in southeastern Nigeria.

They wanted to find a way to respond rapidly and effectively to public health emergencies, with complete independence from political, economic and religious influences.

Today, Doctors Without Borders works in 74 countries around the world. They provide medicine and surgery, mass vaccination campaigns, water and sanitation systems, nutrition, drugs and supplies, health training and the renovation of health facilities.

Private donors provide about 80 percent of the organization's funding, while government and corporate donations provide the rest, giving them annual budget of about $400 million US.

Mitra finds it hard to explain why he enjoys working with the organization so much.

“You can't tell what kind of enjoyment I get out of reading poetry, and you might not get the same enjoyment out of reading the same poetry. So, it's very personal and subjective. How can I explain what I get out of it?”

He showed the audience a series of sometimes-gruesome slides of malnourished children, infected limbs and an ectopic pregnancy operation (where the fetus grows in the fallopian tubes, cervix, ovaries or abdomen).

Mitra said he did hundreds of C-section deliveries while he was in Nigeria. The birth rate in the country is extremely high because couples want to have lots of children to make up for the ones that die before adulthood.

Doctors Without Borders volunteers Rink De Lange and Leanne Olson also spoke at the event. They are travelling Northern Ontario and Manitoba to tell people about the organization.

The married couple, who live near Wakefield, Quebec, met while on a mission to Bosnia in 1994. Olson is a registered nurse who has been on six Doctors Without Borders Missions, and De Lange is a logistician with the organization who has been on five missions.

Olson got involved with the organization because she needed work when they were laying off nurses in her hometown of Winnipeg.

“It's incredibly challenging. I learn so much on these missions. I feel like I'm a better nurse now because I've had so many experiences,” she said.

“I feel like I'm able to contribute so much more because I'm working with populations that are so desperate. These people are so needy that my presence can have such an impact...We're sometimes in refugee camps where you can be taking care of 50,000 or 100,000 people.”

The woman stresses that you don't have to be a doctor to work with Doctors Without Borders. They need nurses, midwives, mental health specialists, laboratory workers and logisticians as well.

As a logistician, her husband is a “jack of all trades” responsible for support services like purchasing supplies, bookkeeping, storekeeping, obtaining permits, supervising local staff, taking care of transport, communications and reporting.

The organization is looking for people with two years of working experience in their field. It's an advantage if you've worked in a foreign country or in Canada's north.

All potential volunteers are interviewed, and if they're accepted, they're sent for training. The average mission is six months long, and workers are paid a small honorarium.

Doctors Without Borders makes sure volunteers live comfortably – if not in opulent style – while they're working in foreign countries. They have people to do their laundry and clean their living quarters, she said.

Steven Fox Radulovich, who has an MBA in digital technology management and has done a lot of work in telehealth in northern aboriginal communities, was at the presentation to see if he could work for Doctors Without Borders.

“I think I could probably work as a logistician. I see that they're having a recruiting drive, so I just want to keep the doors open and do something interesting,” he said.

“I found the adversity under which (Mitra, Olson and De Lange) had to work interesting. I find that appealing. I like to take the road last travelled.”


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