We wake up each day absent the fear that armed soldiers will invade our town, kill, maim, kidnap, or otherwise harm our physical beings. We wake up firm in the knowledge that if we are stricken by illness or injury, excellent medical care will come to our aid within minutes. Our comforts are many. Our confidence and security are intact. No one we know will die today of hunger. In the Mattapoisett River Valley where water is clean and abundant, no one will suffer a deadly water-borne illness or die of thirst.
Alan Hickey, as a member of Doctors Without Borders, has experienced the harshest of conditions that exist far away from his native Mattapoisett. He has also seen the very best of humankind and the very worst, oftentimes in the same day. Undaunted by the realities of traveling to areas deeply immersed in conflict – and lacking many essentials to human life, let alone those creature comforts – Hickey has lent his considerable talents in service to others.
On November 1, during the monthly meeting of the Machacam Club, Hickey shared his story.
After graduating from Old Rochester Regional High School, Hickey studied at UMass Dartmouth. It was there that he heard about Doctors Without Borders.
“I squirrelled away what I learned about them,” said Hickey.
Outside the United States, Doctors Without Borders is known in French as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
After completing his undergraduate studies in 1977 with degrees in Biology and Chemistry, Hickey went on to earn his masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Health Sciences. He also became a licensed Master Mariner with the USCG.
Eventually his career path found him working for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spending winter seasons in Antarctica aboard their research vessel.
As important and challenging as that work was, Hickey felt a deep need to do more, experience more. Then he remembered MSF.
Hickey applied to MSF and was accepted, and for the past decade, he has traveled to areas of the world that others would rather escape.
As a technical logistician for MSF, Hickey is responsible for everything from securing water supplies in drought-ravished areas, to ensuring the smooth and seamless operation of generators powering life support equipment.
In his recently completed tour of duty in South Sudan, there was the added thrill of ensuring that deadly black mamba snakes didn’t join him in his sleeping bag.
“Every night, I tucked in all the edges of the mosquito netting to keep snakes out,” he said with a slight chuckle.
The MSF encampment was located off a tributary of the White Nile River. Hickey described taking planes of various sizes – mechanical integrity – as well as small boats whose edges sipped the water line.
The camp he was stationed at contained a few tents along with mud and bamboo huts.
“The temperature was around one hundred to one hundred twenty degrees, but inside the huts it was always ten degrees hotter,” he said.
Hickey said that when MSF first enters a region, basic infrastructure such as water, power, and sewer must be established for human survival before the medical relief work can begin.
“People need two gallons of clean water a day for cooking, drinking, and bathing,” he explained, while contrasting that volume against what an average American uses daily – an astounding 90 gallons.
Hickey said, “Assignments with the MSF are from two to six months long.” He explained that the organization is founded on the principles of “independence, neutrality, and impartiality,” tenets that, for the MSF worker, are at times sorely tested.
While in South Sudan, Hickey witnessed soldiers rounding up people, including children, for forced military duty. Sharing an incident that remains vivid in his mind, he said, “People came running towards the MSF staff saying, ‘Please sir, can you help me, they are taking my people!’”
“They live in complete uncertainty,” he told the audience. On that day, all the kidnapping victims were eventually returned through the valiant efforts of the local or native MSF staff.
But the story doesn’t always end that way. The area achieved its independence in 2011, he said, “… And has had big time civil war ever since.”
Hickey expresses levels of compassion laced with the reality that while working to his highest personal capabilities, the work is never done.
“MSF is working in seventy countries currently where situations overwhelm local medical services,” he said. “It’s never easy.”
Funding for MSF is strictly through private donations. “Government funding is not allowed,” he said, explaining it as a necessity for keeping the work of the MSF out of political influence. “It helps to maintain the safety of our workers.” He said that the U.S. arm of the organization raises the most funds for MSF coffers. “People in the U.S. are the most philanthropic,” he said, adding that, “Over eighty percent of every dollar is put into the field where the rubber meets the road.”
There are currently 34,000 MSF field workers comprised of native or local people with another eight percent being ex-pats like Hickey. MSF reported that in 2016 their teams had completed 92,600 major surgical interventions and delivered 250,300 babies that included C-sections. The group also reported providing 9.8 million outpatient consultations in 71 countries and aiding 30,600 people assisting in their rescue from sea. There are also 468 projects of an ongoing nature that MSF facilitates, such as nutrition programs, vaccination campaigns, and caring for victims of sexual violence.
By the end of his deployment, Hickey said he had lost interest in lentils and rice, confiding to the audience, “After about four weeks, you dream about food.” Hickey said when he returned to Mattapoisett, his family thought he looked horrible, having lost over 30 pounds from his already slim frame; but he said he told them, “I felt great!”
Clearly the work done by MSF staff members is a labor of love. Living within the similar limitations of food, water, and safety as the people they serve levels the playing field of life, but for Hickey there also this: “It’s a privilege to work with people from all over the world.”
Of the thousands that are served, Hickey gently said, “We are all basically the same.” And while it was “the hardest mission I’ve ever done,” said Hickey, he plans on returning.
“I have evacuation insurance,” he said with a warm smile.
To learn more about Doctors Without Borders visit www.doctorswithoutborders.org.
By Marilou Newell