October 23, 2015

“If I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time, he would have died.”

Ima Anugom is describing an encounter with a patient she met in Old Fangak, a remote community in South Sudan where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides emergency medical care to people with little to no access to health services. As the medical coordinator for MSF’s operations in South Sudan, Anugom was visiting a project that during the rainy season is only accessible by air — and even then, only on days when a plane can land on the treacherous muddy runway.

On this occasion, an MSF plane had been able to successfully deliver Anugom, along with some crucial medical supplies, to Fangak. But the aircraft had barely taken off again when Anugom — a doctor from Nigeria who is currently based in Edmonton — was met with a patient in need of urgent attention.

 

 

“Just as I arrived and the plane had taken off, a 12-year-old boy was rushed in to the MSF compound. His abdomen had been ripped out by a crocodile,” she recalls. “In Fangak, we were only equipped to provide basic care; we had no surgery and no OT. I just happened to have arrived at the very same time the patient arrived, and we still had contact with the plane. We were able to call the plane back after stabilizing him, and to send this boy immediately to another project to provide the surgery.”

The boy survived, and was able to return to Fangak. “It just really showed the challenges we face in so many parts of South Sudan,” Anugom says. “It is a very complex and very difficult context in which to work. Just getting access to our patients is very hard.”

 

The unique challenges of South Sudan 

Anugom arrived in South Sudan in early 2015, following a previous posting with MSF in Uganda. Prior to that, Anugom worked for MSF in her native Nigeria, starting as a national staff emergency doctor before eventually becoming the medical coordinator for MSF’s operations in the country. While all of these positions came with distinct challenges, the complexity of the ongoing crisis in South Sudan made her most recent posting a unique experience for Anugom.

'In some places we are able to help where others are too overwhelmed. But it is important that people know what is happening in South Sudan and why so much more help is needed'

“In South Sudan, when you accomplish something you really know you did it,” she says. “There are so many needs. There is the conflict, but there is also displacement, malnutrition, malaria, HIV, TB and more — and the rates are rising.” When it gained independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan already faced a number of challenges, including a severe lack of development, infrastructure or basic services — and a number of unresolved tensions from a decades-long civil war. In late 2013, these tensions exploded into a violent civil conflict that continues to wreak havoc on the country, with an estimated 1.5 million people displaced within South Sudan and another half a million having taken shelter outside the country’s borders. Many people have taken to South Sudan’s inhospitable bush country to escape the violence, and malnutrition, disease and injury are rife. The country is one of MSF’s biggest international interventions, as the organization works to provide urgently needed medical care in response to an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

“It is easy to get overwhelmed in South Sudan. But we are providing care to internally displaced persons and to refugees from the Nuba mountains, doing obstetrics and pediatrics, running emergency projects  and more,” says Anugom, who also lists a boat ambulance and referral system for people who live in places with no road access as one of the accomplishments she is most proud of from her time in South Sudan. “In some places we are able to help where others are too overwhelmed. But it is important that people know what is happening in South Sudan and why so much more help is needed.”

'I saw MSF working with HIV patients. And I appreciated the fact that there were people going to these areas and working with patients who needed help, and that these people were making a difference.'

 

Inspired by MSF

For Anugom, who grew up in Lagos, delivering emergency care where it is needed most is the reason she continues to work with MSF. “When I finished medical school in Nigeria, I went to the north of the country for the first time, and was shocked by the state of health; it was very different from what I was used to in the south. But I saw MSF delivering healthcare to people who could not access or afford it. When I came back south, I also saw MSF working with HIV patients. And I appreciated the fact that there were people going to these areas and working with patients who needed help, and that these people were making a difference. I moved to Port Harcourt [in Nigeria’s south east], where MSF was delivering free emergency care for people affected by trauma and violence, and I applied to work with them. I became an MSF emergency doctor.”

“When I first saw MSF,” Anugom continues, “I said, ‘I want to do this.’ I want to save lives and help people who need it most.”

For now, though, Anugom will have her hands full in Edmonton. After moving to Canada in 2013 and settling in Markham, Ontario, she is currently beginning studies for her Masters degree in Public Health at the University of Alberta. She is establishing herself in her new home, alongside her husband and three-year-old daughter. “Everybody tells us that it will be cold in winter,” she says. “But we are very happy to be in such a welcoming place.”

Despite her studies, however, Anugom will not have MSF’s work far from her mind. “I told all of my colleagues in South Sudan and in headquarters that I will be back,” she says. “I love being part of this movement.”

 

 

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