International work, medical or otherwise, is dangerous. Maybe only a little more dangerous than normal American life, maybe quite a lot. A long-term Christian missionary doing really, really good work was gunned down in Haiti just today.
I myself have done relief work in Haiti. One of the places I worked is located in the hills of a village-esque area called Noyau. This place is about as remote from civilized life as I can recall being in my life.
After an hour of 4WD driving on extremely-rough dirt switchbacks up a mountainside, we pulled on packs and hiked for another hour+ to reach the area of our clinic. If something went wrong out there, the time required to receive aid would exceed 4 hours easily. Assuming emergency crews had access to a 4WD vehicle, which is doubtful.
I recall thinking, as well over 100 Hatians stared at us zipping ourselves into our expensive tents and sleeping bags at the end of a clinic day, how honorable they were as a people. They had hiked for many hours to find our clinic, and often the only thing we had to offer them upon their arrival was a few TUMS tablets. Frequently their medical problems were either too complex for us to help with, or, more commonly, we simply didn’t have the medicine or procedural ability they needed.
But they could have robbed us. Selling our nice North Face and Sierra Designs gear would have fetched an impressive price in Port au Prince. Furthermore, they could have kidnapped us and held us for ransom. Now we’re talking real money. Until they talked to my wife, who would probably say something like, “Take ‘im. Never does the dishes anyway.”
We were totally vulnerable in that village. But the reason, I believe, nothing bad happened was simply because most Hatians are good people. Honorable people. Honorable, even, by my wealthy American standards, where respect for property and life is alive and well. They let me keep my nice tent, even though they couldn’t be sure of their next meal.
Similarly, while working in the Galatsia camp on our 3rd day in Athens, I ended up in an extremely vulnerable position. Again, we came out unscathed largely because most people are, quite simply, good.
Prior to entering the camp, I asked one of my team members with military training to effectively serve as our “security.” He took his role seriously: identifying sight-lines, exits, areas of risk, areas of relative safety. He developed rudimentary emergency plans, identified key leaders in the facility and communicated escape plans to our team.
But for some reason, when I was asked to leave our clinic to go see a patient reportedly too sick to walk to us, I didn’t think to ask our security guy to come with us. In “medical mode,” it’s difficult to think in “safety mode” too. Our task is to meet needs, not protect ourselves, and the thinking between the two is often very different.
I also believed we would be going to one of the large rooms with lots of people, located near the entrances, near the police, organizers, aides and managers.
That’s not where we went.
Led by the sick woman’s husband, we walked down corridor after corridor. Branching off from each of the primary hallways were other halls, down which I saw a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men, crouched against the wall, all looking at me. The halls were strewn with trash, cell phones hanging by cords from every available outlet. I heard yelling, some laughing, but mostly saw numerous drawn, emotionless, bored faces. There was no joy.
I went with our clinic organizer (a Persian woman who organized the whole medical clinic, speaks numerous languages, and knows what she’s doing) and, as luck would have it, the pastor of the local Calvary Chapel we’re working with who saw us wandering away and followed. So at least I wasn’t alone.
But after the 3rd corridor, and up a large flight of stairs, then outside the building and then back into it and around a corner, I knew that if someone wanted to do us harm, they would have succeeded. We’d followed this guy like ducklings.
But he didn’t harm us. All the man wanted was to know if his wife would be OK, and if it might be possible to get her on her feet by that evening, in hiking condition. He intended to continue his journey into Europe as soon as he could.
I diagnosed viral gastroenteritis and told him she may be ready to roll by that evening, but giving it another day or two would be better. He clearly intended to leave that night, despite what I’d said.
Later, of course, we laughed about this. Our team leader, Sahar, laughed at me for being so worried.
But the truth is that there is no way to do this work without incurring some amount of risk. Usually the risk is small, thanks largely to the fact that although there is terror and violence in the world, most humans on this planet are good, fairly honest people. Most are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.
As are we all.