Doctors with a conscience

They go where you wouldn’t want to. They simply roll up their sleeves and jump into the most dangerous places on Earth to provide medical care. They seek out armed conflict, epidemics and natural disasters—sound like fun? Where others fear to tread, they see an obligation. They are Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. When I first met a few of their members in Pakistan, I thought “Doctors Without Fear” was a more appropriate name.

A small group of French doctors and nurses started MSF in the early 1970s, and the premise was quite simple and humane. They believed that all people in the world, despite their adverse circumstances, deserved adequate medical care. For these doctors and nurses, borders set up by governments were insignificant. Political obstacles were inconsequential. Where lives hung in the balance, that’s where they would go.

Back in 1986, they were needed on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to care for the victims of the war between the Afghan rebels and the Soviet Union. Some members of MSF were smuggling themselves into the war zone secretly because Afghan doctors and nurses had been killed or run out of the country. Obviously, the doctors were not the well-paid country-club types familiar to U.S. citizens. I was awed by their stories of helping the marginalized throughout the world. And unlike doctors I knew, they were speaking out against humanitarian abuses and were taking a vocal stand.

Less vocal, and probably less heroic, though certainly concerned about sick people across the border, are the Flying Samaritans featured in this week’s cover story (see “Doctors on the fly”). These medical professionals and volunteers provide free health care for migrant workers and others in Mexico, thus proving there are people who care all over the world, and borders can’t keep them out.