Kate White is an operating theatre nurse from Brisbane who recently spent more than 18 months working on Médecins Sans Frontières emergency desk. The Emergency Desk is a specialist emergency response unit based in Amsterdam, Holland. Members of the Desk are often among the first to take action in international medical emergencies, and work to launch and coordinate Médecins Sans Frontières’ responses to these crises.
How did you first come to work on the Emergency Desk?
I’d been working with Médecins Sans Frontières for a couple of years, and was in Papua New Guinea when I heard a role on the Emergency Desk was opening up. I’d been working in leadership roles in the organisation and was interested in doing more emergency work, so I applied and had what I thought was an absolute bomb of a Skype interview. To my total surprise, I got the job and had to pack up and move to Amsterdam!
How does the Emergency Desk work?
The Emergency Desk is a team of about a dozen medical staff, logisticians, and administrators, and its objective is to make sure that Médecins Sans Frontières is serving the populations most in need around the world in the right way. Every week, the head of the desk sits down and looks at what’s come up around the world -- a refugee crisis, or disease outbreak, or violence somewhere -- and decides whether the organisation needs to do something new or differently in order to respond to that adequately. Then, someone from our team will be sent in for a few months to try and sort that out, which may involve helping to start up a project, or going to an existing project to help them change the way they do things. You spend a few months in a project at a time getting systems in place and making sure that everything is working well, and then fly back to Amsterdam for about a week until you are sent off to your next emergency with hardly any notice!
What projects did you work in while you were on the Emergency Desk?
The very first thing that I was asked to do was to go to Syria! It had been too dangerous for us to work there for a while and we wanted to figure out if it would be viable to set up any sort of project. I flew to Jordan, which was the country we were going to enter Syria from, but we eventually realised that even if we managed to get into Syria, we might not make it out again. After that, I went to projects working with an influx of refugees in Ethiopia, violence in Central African Republic, and spent a lot of time dealing with Ebola in Sierra Leone and Guinea. I would usually only be in a country for a maximum of three months at a time.
"For me, really, the greatest challenge has been leaving the emergency desk behind and coming back to Australia"
What was it like to be working on the Emergency Desk during the worst of the Ebola outbreak?
I was on holiday back in Australia when I got a call asking if I’d be interested in leaving to go to Gueckedou in Guinea and help out with Ebola -- and, being the weird person I am, I told them that I’d love to! At that stage, we had no idea how bad the outbreak would be, so we thought that we could bring it under control quite quickly. We were working 16 hours a day, seven days a week to try and contain it. But by the time I left two months later it was obvious that it was completely beyond us, and that the outbreak just wasn’t going anywhere. I worked in quite a few Ebola projects over the next year or so, and it was really interesting to see how differently Médecins Sans Frontières was approaching the outbreak in the later stages than we had at the beginning.
What were the challenges of the role and how did you deal with them?
The pace of the Emergency Desk is obviously very challenging, in that you’re constantly out in the field and working all hours of the day – you really do come to dread that alarm going off every morning. But, for me, the higher the stakes and the greater the pressure, the better. As long as I can try to get one morning every few weeks where I can just sleep until I want to, then that’s OK. And you get holidays so you can lie on a beach and relax and see friends, and I always made sure to get back to Australia once a year. For me, really, the greatest challenge has been leaving the emergency desk behind and coming back to Australia – I really miss being constantly surrounded by such great people doing such great things!
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