I was surprised when the Bangladeshi police officer flagged down our car at the check point this morning. Normally the MSF logo on the vehicle allows us to pass without hindrance. We stopped and I rolled down the window, kept my hands visible and still on my lap, and looked straight ahead. This is standard operating procedure. No sudden movements, no sunglasses, no earphones or music playing. The senior person in the car is the spokesman.
“Where are you going?” asked the officer.
The medical team leader is an African lady, half my age. From the back seat, she replied, “We are visiting the Memorial Christian Hospital, just past Cox’s Bazar.”
The officer glared at me. “Is she your wife?”
“No, sir,” I replied. “I am old and she is young. I wouldn’t be able to cope.” I smiled to show I was joking in a self deprecating manner. The policeman snorted derisively and waved us on.
“I apologise for the bad joke,” I said as we drove away.
“Next time it would be better just to say we were married,” my boss replied.
Memorial Christian Hospital (MCH), in Malumghat, Chakaria Thana, is run under the auspices of the Association of Baptists NGO. The American and Canadian health workers who founded the original hospital in 1966 selected the location in southeastern East Pakistan due to its desperate healthcare needs and proximity to major transportation corridors.
In 1971, East Pakistan descended into war when it tried to secede from West Pakistan. Between 3 and 5 million people died in the war of independence. During the conflict, the American health workers attempted to leave the country, but the Pakistan Army advanced rapidly and cut off their northern escape. Most of the team wasforced to cross the border into Burma, travelling to safety in Maungdaw in Rakhine State. Ironically, this is the reverse of the route that half a million Rohingya took over the past six weeks. Two doctors stayed behind to keep the hospital functioning. Following independence, the site was often approached by the US government toassist in distributing aid. Since then, the hospital has outgrown the original buildings and a new four storey hospital is being built.
Two doctors stayed behind to keep the hospital functioning. Following independence, the site was used by the US government to distribute aid. Since then, the hospital has outgrown the original buildings and a new four storey hospital is being built.
Surgeon Steve Kelley has worked here for 21 years. He is my main contact when I want to refer difficult surgical cases, especially war-wounded Rohingya and the victims of road accidents. Including elephant attacks.
In response to the massive influx of refugees, MCH built a temporary ward in just two weeks. It is a sophisticated structure of bamboo (painted black or white) and white plastic sheeting. There is a strip above the head of each bed with power outlet, oxygen and an alarm button. It is kept cool by ceiling fans.
Some of the patients I had sent to MCH recognised me from their beds. Despite being in pain, all of them smiled when Steve came to their bedside. We moved on to the male and female surgical wards, then had a tour of the operating theatres and recovery area. Despite being fifty years old, the main hospital was incredibly clean. This, and scrupulous surgical technique, would account for the fact that not a single patient we have referred has developed a wound infection. If anything serious happens to me when I’m in Bangladesh, this is where I want to be treated.
The BBC, Channel NewsAsia and CNN have all visited the hospital in recent weeks. One of the patients spotlighted was a five year old girl who had been shot through the forearm, destroying all the extensor tendons and shattering her radius. Her father had been carrying her when she was shot. After exiting her arm, the bullet hit her father’s head and killed him. Her bones are mended and she is going back for tendon reconstruction.
Neither her surgeon, Steve Kelley, nor Memorial Christian Hospital, featured strongly in the piece. But Steve, Brad and their colleagues perform life changing surgery every single day. The expat doctors and nurses here do this without getting paid. They have to raise money to fund their flights, their living expenses as well as running the hospital. No money comes from the US or Bangladeshi governments. They are all heroes, saints even. I was overcome with admiration for their selfless work.