Doctoring in the danger zones

by Jake Brennan, BA'97

No one would regard the work regularly performed by emergency room doctors as being an easy gig. But for Dr. Joanne Liu, MDCM’91, her long shifts as an ER pediatrician at Sainte-Justine University Hospital, aren’t enough.

“I’ve had 12 years of training, so when someone comes in at three a.m. with an earache, it’s not the best use of my skills,” she reasons. “The best way to apply my training is working in difficult, complex contexts.”

Clearly, as a Médecins Sans Frontières field pediatrician, she has found that outlet. Liu enters disaster and conflict zones soon after they erupt, staying four to eight weeks. Since starting with MSF in 1996, her passport stamps read like the government’s Do Not Travel list: Haiti, South Sudan, Congo, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and the West Bank.

All this work in situations of danger and deprivation recently earned Liu the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada’s 2013 Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award. Liu downplays the prize. “Joanne Liu all by herself doesn’t mean anything. It’s Joanne Liu within MSF.”

The former president of MSF Canada, Liu is taking on an even bigger job. She was recently elected as MSF International's new president. She begins her new role in October.

As a kid, the daughter of Chinese restaurant-owning immigrants in Quebec City, everyone told the star student she would be a doctor. Liu balked at first: the only doctor she knew “had a big house, a built-in pool…This wasn’t the life I wanted.”

At 18, she went on a three-month exchange to Mali, where she was moved by the great human need, but not the travel. “Actually, I hate taking the plane,” she laughs.

Around that time she read Albert Camus’s The Plague, about a doctor fighting a mysterious fatal disease who says, ‘I am still not used to seeing people die.’ “That has always remained with me,” says Liu. “I do not want to get used to death and banalize it. That’s what we do: ‘25 people died.’ There’s no human face to it,” she rails.

Whereas Sainte-Justine’s ER averages six patient losses per year, in the field, patients die daily. Liu recognizes not all are wired to weather the front-line strain of making life-and-death decisions to a soundtrack of distant gunfire. Two of her colleagues, kidnapped shortly after she left Kenya in 2011, are still missing.

Liu doesn’t dwell on the risks and she is quick to discount any talk about heroism on her part. “We just do what’s right,” she says matter-of-factly. The real hero is “the mother who walked three weeks to get to the refugee camp and the clinic to find treatment for her child.”

With France’s Dr. Laurent Bonnardot, Liu co-developed a telemedicine project that gives MSF’s remote field doctors at 150 sites live access to 300 specialists worldwide in English, French and Spanish. “Suddenly, you’re not all by yourself in the middle of the Sudan or Congo. It makes a huge difference,” says Liu. “The way I sell it to my colleagues is: ‘You say you always wanted to do MSF? Well, now you can do it from your living room!’”

Liu is enrolled in McGill’s International Master’s Program in Health Leadership, a program devised by the Desautels Faculty of Management’s Henry Mintzberg. She enjoys learning from a diverse group of classmates and exchanging ideas with Mintzberg, “a living legend.”

The soon-to-be MSF International president also welcomes the program's global orientation. We can't ignore what goes on beyond our borders, says Liu.

“We can no longer just change the channel on what’s going on in certain parts of the world,” she insists, “because we are becoming so interdependent.”

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