Communities in war-torn areas often have limited or non-existent medical facilities. Mike Denison works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in government hospitals in war-torn areas as a health aid worker, training staff and fixing medical equipment, producing or sourcing better treatment and saving lives.
Keeping premature babies alive and warm at night in functioning humidicribs or making sure medical equipment is sterile so that patients do not die of preventable infections is all in a regular day for Mike. As a health care worker he is the first biomedical engineer to work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Mike visits countries that have experienced extended periods of conflict and where the medical services have suffered; most recently, he has been working with medical teams in Gaza and Afghanistan.
"The thing I like about doing this sort of work is seeing the improvements to the hospital, seeing the way equipment is available for treating patients and seeing staff able to use this equipment," says Mike. "It really makes me smile."
Part of being an aid worker is adjusting to a new way of life, and in conflict areas the safety issues can be extreme. When working with an ICRC delegation, Mike lives in a compound with other staff, which he jokingly likens to being on a Big Brother television set, where the residents eat, work and socialise together.
"In Gaza we weren't allowed on the streets," says Mike of the area which has been in political turmoil for decades. "I was fortunate because I was able to visit hospitals and see a bit of the country and get out. But in Afghanistan I travelled from the residence to the hospital each day which was 300 metres away and I did not travel outside of that. So there's no walking on the street at night, there's no going for a run or for a bike ride, there's no going to a restaurant. This is quite difficult to get used to."
Building local solutions
Mike is one of three biomedical engineers now working with ICRC around the world and was sent to Gaza on a one year placement in 2008. Of the 12 small hospitals in Gaza, eight are supported by the ICRC.
"The staff there were well trained, they had a lot of experience," says Mike. "It's imperative to work with the local people. For me there's no point in doing a substitution project, where I come and substitute for what's available locally. I want to go there and build sustainability and complement existing structures and to build capacity within them."
Mike was surprised to spend large amounts of time negotiating with authorities to ensure medical supplies got through the blockades to the hospitals. Fortunately, one of the Palestinian staff members Mike hired, a biomedical engineer, had great connections within the Ministry of Health, which opened many doors.
"I was very lucky," Mike says. "He* was extremely well trained and skilled and his language was excellent so he translated for me as well. The two of us developed the program activities and worked together very well."
By measuring the number of laundry machines and sterilizers that were operating and the level of equipment in the emergency department, they found significant improvements over the year, Mike recalls.
Impartiality in action
During Mike's time in Gaza, he recounts the positive contributions made by all sides, the different groups of Palestinians and Israelis. One of the fundamental principles of Red Cross/Red Crescent work internationally is about being impartial, not discriminating on the basis of culture, religion or other beliefs.
Another trip that involved treading carefully in a country divided by ethnic groups and religious beliefs involved two months in Afghanistan. In 2009, Mike worked in a technical role in the hospital for war-wounded in Kandahar, this involved repairing and installing equipment and training staff.
"I repaired an incubator which keeps a baby warm if it's born prematurely," says Mike. "I remember going into that room and seeing the incubator with a baby in it and the mother beside it, happy because her child is now warm. Being able to help to deliver health care in those circumstances is really rewarding."
Mike recalls the benefits he saw after training groups of nurses who used the equipment every day but they had often not been trained and didn't understand the equipment they were using.
"We had a number of sessions talking about the oxygen making machines so that they'd be able to look after them better and they'd last longer and they'd be available for use when they're needed," he says.
Mike is back in Australia now taking advantage of being able to run and cycle, and enjoy the restaurants and cafes in Melbourne. He has been on seven international missions with Red Cross. Mike has taken on a new role working with Australian Red Cross in the International Program team handling Pakistan and Indonesia. Though Mike says he would love to see an increase in the number of biomedical engineers working with the ICRC.
"I think it has potential," he says. "There are a lot of countries that have extended periods of conflict and their health services have been deteriorating during that time. The work is very rewarding and it's a great part of professional development. I learn as much as I teach when I go away."
*The Palestinian staff member is not being named for security reasons.
Photos: A baby stays warm during its first days of life on a cold night in Afghanistan (Mike Denison / Australian Red Cross).