Organizing a public demonstration, or being interviewed on television to campaign for humanitarian corridors, or setting up a foundation to spread specialist expertise about trauma surgery—these would have been impossible things for me to contemplate when I was a young consultant in the early 1990s. They are the acts of a man my younger self would not have recognized—except it is still me, and we are both the product of my Welsh upbringing and all the myriad factors that shape a personality.
The campaigning and the teaching that drive me now are a function of all my experiences, but in particular my experiences in recent years in Syria. I have made three major trips there since 2012, along with other visits to the border zone, and in that period my life has changed profoundly. I began seriously to collate and share the knowledge I had acquired over my career to help other doctors, especially doctors from countries at war. I began to get seriously angry about the inability of the major powers to prevent hospitals and medical staff from being targeted in environments where they were simply trying to save lives. And, most miraculously of all, I became seriously involved with the woman who I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, married her, and became a father.
I have been to other places since 2012, but Syria is the thread that runs through this most extraordinary period of my life, the seam to which I keep returning. These trip s have been the most extraordinarily fulfilling, frustrating, and dangerous of all.
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THE BOMB FACTORY
The London 2012 Summer Olympics were in full flow, with Team Great Britain winning a record number of medals and the country basking in the reflected glory of our athletes and a successful Games. It was hard to imagine that only a few hours' flight away an entire country was descending into violent anarchy.
I was busy with my day job for the National Health Service. For most of the year I work at three hospitals in London: St. Mary's, where I am a consultant vascular (blood vessels and circulation, from the Latin vas, for vessel) and trauma surgeon; the Royal Marsden, where I help the cancer surgeons from various specialties such as general surgery, urology, facio-maxillary, and gynecology remove large tumors en bloc, which then require extensive vascular reconstruction; and the Chelsea and Westminster, where I am a consultant laparoscopic (keyhole) and general surgeon. But alongside this work, in most years since the early 1990s I've also done a few weeks' trauma surgery in a war zone. I monitor the news avidly, keeping an eye out for developing hotspots, knowing at some point soon an aid agency is likely to ask me to help.
When I get such a call, my heart begins to race and I develop an irrepressible urge to remove any obstacle that might prevent me from going. My immediate response is always, "Give me a couple of hours and I will come back to you." The call might come while I'm operating or assisting a colleague, or I might be holding a routine outpatient clinic. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, the desire to go is always intense and almost overwhelming. But I can't say yes every time. I might get a couple of requests a month from different agencies, and could easily be a full-time volunteer, but I have to earn a living, too. I do receive £300 or so for a month's field-work, but mostly that's spent on everyday expenses.
Before agreeing to anything, I call the surgical manager at Chelsea and Westminster, where my contract is held, and explain that there's a humanitarian crisis in which I've been asked to help. I then request immediate unpaid leave for the time I'll be away. There is usually no objection, "as long as you can sort out your clinics and your operating and your on-calls." Indeed, I have never yet been turned down. No doubt the carrot of taking unpaid leave while maintaining all my commitments helps to allay any anxieties the NHS might have!
So I didn't need asking twice when, during the summer of 2012, a call came from the head office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Paris, asking if I would be prepared to work in a hospital they'd set up in Syria. I made the usual arrangements at home, packed my things, and got on a plane to Turkey.