Saturday, September 23, 2006

Doctor's Without Borders

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Photo courtesy of Xtina

Most of us didn't have the opportunity to go to the Doctor's Without Borders event in NYC on Thursday night. We can enjoy a first hand account, thanks to Stillife, that's almost as good as being there ourselves. BTW the picture is NOT from the event on Thursday, it just seemed fitting and appropriate.

Anderson Cooper in Conversation With Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Cooper Union, New York City, September 21, 2006

We arrived way early because we didn't know what to expect. Would there be hordes of Anderson fangurls and fanbois queuing up hours in advance? As it turned out, that was not the case, so we went for a drink, then sat for awhile in a nearby park and conversed with the local loonies.

At around 5:00 we got in line for a pre-forum cocktail party featuring cheese and crackers, crudites and dip and Two Buck Chuck (cheap wine from Trader Joe). Alas, Anderson wasn't there (no big surprise). We snagged seats in the musty-smelling auditorium and fortified ourselves with cheese and crackers. We got decent seats but the view of the podium was obstructed by all these annoying pillars.

The place was full, but not totally packed. The audience was mostly female, lots of students but also a fair amount of older people. The front center rows had been reserved. I didn't recognize anyone who was sitting there except for Iman. She's absolutely gorgeous but surprisingly not all that tall.

I sat next to a woman who lived near Anderson when he was a kid and "watched him grow up". She told me she remembered when Carter committed suicide, all the ambulances, press and police cars. I would have loved to press her for more details on adolescent! Anderson but good taste prevented me, plus the forum was about to begin.

After a brief intro by somebody from Cooper Union, Anderson came onstage looking awesome as always. I know he was dressed in a suit and tie, but I totally forgot to note what exactly he was wearing. I'm pretty sure it was the same thing he had on for 360 last night. He began by saying that he hoped to be as interesting as Hugo Chavez (who had spoken there the night before). That got a laugh, of course.

Anderson introduced Dr. Milton Tectonidis, whom he first met in Niger, by saying, "At first I thought he was a drifter! He's cleaned up now." After introducing Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders, Anderson realized that they were supposed to show a clip of his Niger coverage (Starving in Plain Sight) before starting the interview and had to ask Tectonidis and de Torrente to leave the stage while the clip played. He said, "I've only got one thing to do and I messed it up. I'm still nervous from interviewing the Iranian president last night. I still haven't figured out what was going on there!" Laughter from the audience.

Anderson started by talking about famine. Dr. Tectonidis said that the very young are the first to die. The mortality rate for children under five is very high and even worse among children under three. Anderson asked him, "How do you see this every day? I found it overwhelming being there for a couple of days." Basically, the answer was that they just didn't think about it. "If I watch surgery on TV, I always vomit. If you're really there, you just do what has to be done." Dr. Tectonidis said, "Every starving child is like a model of ignorance and evil." He talked about the necessity of not breaking down in front of the parents. "Parents need help, not sympathy."

Anderson's next question was about priorities. In a desperate situation such as war, natural disaster or famine, how do you decide who to treat first? They use a "rapid assessment tool" which is a wrist bracelet that measures malnutrition by the size of a child's wrist. The doctor's clinical ethic, they said, is "Go for the worst first." They talked about the difficulty of making these decisions: giving some children lower priority because they're not sick enough.

The subject next turned to news coverage. They said that Anderson's reporting from Niger made a huge impact in terms of getting help. At first, Doctors Without Borders was the only aid organization in Niger, but since the additional news coverage generated by Anderson's reporting, now other organizations are pitching in. They acknowledged the frustration because of the difficulty in getting news coverage for these stories. As Anderson said, "Malnutrition and famine is not a sexy story." (It is when you're reporting it, Anderson!)

Dr. Tectonidis said that they are now able to treat non-emergency cases in their homes with a peanut-based food called Plumpy Nut. This technique represents great progress over the old policy of keeping these children in hospital for weeks, since it frees up hospital beds and medical personnel for the more desperate cases.

Anderson wryly commented that the U.N. guys drive around "in white Land Rovers - you guys cut a much lower profile", implying that the U.N. doesn't accomplish much. One of the MSF guys - can't remember who - said, "We also have nice cars!"(Laughter from the audience). But I guess there is a general feeling that the U.N. is rather ineffectual. They said that MSF is more independent than the U.N. which gives it greater flexibility. They said some politicians are 'hopeless'. Anderson said, "You wanna name any of them?"

Anderson asked, "What should we know about?"which turned into a discussion of the Congo ("Where you're going next" - so I guess he really is going there soon). They talked about all of the atrocities being committed there - killing, torture, rape. Anderson wondered what the motivation could possibly be to commit such insane acts and they said it was fear and control. Anderson asked, "Do you get scared?"Dr. Tectonides said of course they get scared. "Once you go beyond a certain line, you lose it. People are like objects." But unbelievably, they tend not to touch doctors. He was kidnapped and they let him walk around with his doctor bag.

They discussed the thin line, in the Congo, between committing atrocities for rational yet perverse reasons versus being totally out of control. "You'll see that," one of them told Anderson who responded, "Frankly, I'm hoping not to ever see that!"

They spoke of MSF aid workers becoming targets because unpopular governments often want to associate aid with military goals. They agreed that Iraq is one of the most dangerous places in the world today; they had to withdraw their aid workers (heckuva job, Dubya).

These guys weren't a bunch of peaceniks (not that there's anything wrong with that). They agreed that sometimes military intervention is necessary - not desirable, but necessary. "But you shouldn't pretend it's humanitarian."

Anderson asked them considering the desperate situation in so many places around the world today, if they don't sometimes feel they're bailing out water on a sinking rowboat. "World peace?"Anderson: "Oh, that!"

All in all, I was left with great admiration for the MSF aid workers and for Anderson who strives to keep us aware of these "unsexy" yet "impordant" stories.
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Quitty said...

Thanks for the report Stillife! I hope they televise this somewhere. It is this kind of story that needs to be told outside of Cooper Union.

Anonymous said...

I've been at the event. Basiclly everything is correct. I do hope they televise it , there were 2 or 3 cameras recording the event. There were other things they talked about and more dark humor, there was Q&A at the end (people wrote questions on cards). The "other" guy was Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director of DWB. Milton Tectinidis talked on the most part, his a nutrition consultant in DWB Medical Department. I'm thinking of giving more detaled account of the conversation (it was a public event and I'm sure they wouldn't mind), I think it's a very important topic and those guys from DWB are amazing

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing, Stilllife! :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Stilllife for sharing your experience with us. DWB is truly an amazing organization worthy of our contributions.I agree with quitty that it would be nice if they televise this program. High fives to ivy for giving us more in depth info.

QueenAnneGrl said...

I enjoyed this rendering of the event!

Make a difference said...

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