City Weekend

Hong Kong surgeon leaves her comfort zone by volunteering for work in South Sudan

Shannon Chan was impressed with people’s strength while on a Medecins Sans Frontieres assignment in a country wracked by civil war and poverty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 9:03am

When Hong Kong surgeon Shannon Melissa Chan was trying her best to save a newborn baby boy in South Sudan, the mother of the baby grabbed her hand and said: “Let him go.”

Minutes later, the boy died in his mother’s arms.

“If the child is not meant to survive, he is not meant to survive. That is life,” the mother, who was on her third day of labour, told the doctor.

It was one of the most heart-breaking moments for Chan, 33, who was a field worker with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the international medical humanitarian organisation.

Each year, over 2,000 MSF field workers provide medical aid to people in about 65 countries, mostly those with poor living conditions and an unstable political environment.

“The feeling of watching them suffer or having to let them go breaks my heart, every single time. I was heartbroken and yet when I looked at the baby’s mother, the calmness in her eyes startled me. She did not cry nor did she shed a tear,” Chan said of her experience in Bor, the capital of Jongel state in South Sudan, where she had her first MSF mission last October.

The country, which is home to more than 10 million people, has suffered from civil wars for many years. But Chan is impressed with the strength of the local population.

They are like warriors of life who are never defeated by difficulties. I am full of admiration for them
Shannon Chan

“They are like warriors of life who are never defeated by difficulties. I am full of admiration for them,” she said.

Before going to the field, she already knew that South Sudan was politically unstable and wracked with poverty. But Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, wanted to explore something that was radically different from the advanced city, even though her family expressed concerns.

“I grew up in this well-developed city and was always protected,” she said. “The plight of people in South Sudan is often under-reported. I needed to go there in person and see how devastating the situation was so I could offer help.”

During her three-month assignment, Chan and her 11 teammates from elsewhere had to overcome several challenges such as poor medical facilities. They had to do operations in a tent and, at one point even sterilised equipments by burning firewood.

“Being a surgeon there does not mean I would only perform operations. I also needed to do lots of preparation work such as cleaning the operating room and making sure there was enough equipment, which I don’t have to do in a Hong Kong hospital,” she said. “I didn’t know that nurses had to do so much preparation work.”

The language barrier was also one of the challenges Chan and her teammates faced, and in particular whether the doctors could explain the risk factors involved in operations in the local language.

“Most South Sudanese are very thankful to MSF. There’s a handful of very traditional locals who think surgeons are witches. And if patients die during an operation, they might think the surgeons have put a spell on them,” Chan said.

She said every decision that her team made could have an impact on MSF and any medical blunders would hurt its relationship with the government as well as the community.

“I used to think only about myself, like how my career could go further in the quickest time. I was always thinking about myself. But after this mission, I realised there are so many things in life that you can do and achieve and at the same time benefit other people,” she said.

“I believe we are all born to be equal. Those who are more fortunate should always help the poor.”

MSF-Hong Kong is encouraging the public to donate a day’s income to support MSF Day on July 7. Donations will go to its medical and humanitarian projects, which provide mainly medical aid to people in need.