Lexington anesthesiologist helps through Doctors Without Borders

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comNovember 11, 2013 

Dr. Philip Hall, a Lexington anesthesiologist, has volunteered in three countries with Doctors Without Borders.

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Dr. Philip Hall talks easily about his medical mission work in war-torn countries. Since last year, the Lexington anesthesiologist has traveled to Nigeria, Sudan and Syria as a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders.

But when it comes to relaying the cases that stand out for him, he declines to give specifics.

"There is just incredible suffering," he said.

Volunteering with Doctors Without Borders is not for everyone, Hall said. In fact, Doctors Without Border press officer Tim Shenk said Hall is one of only four people from Kentucky to volunteer for the program since 2010.

On any given day, 22,000 volunteers are doing the work of Doctors Without Borders, the international nonprofit providing medical treatment in 60 countries, according to the organization's website.

"Dr. Hall stands out as a great example of the kind of person Doctors Without Borders recruits — someone with urgently needed skills who can work well in challenging conditions. Anesthesiologists are one of the most needed medical specialties that we look for," Shenk said.

Hall, 62, is a mostly retired anesthesiologist working at Saint Joseph. Before joining Doctors Without Borders, he had gone on several medical mission trips to Guatemala.

Last year, interested in seeing what kind of help was needed for longer missions, he found Doctors Without Borders. He filled out the application online and went through a three-day orientation before going on his first five-week assignment to Nigeria.

Doctors Without Borders does a good job explaining what the volunteer responsibilities will be, Hall said, but nothing could have prepared him for what happens on the ground.

"The injuries are nothing like you see in civilian life," he said.

That first mission, he said, "was very difficult." Not because of the work or the working conditions. The cultural difference, the day-to-day living was a challenge. Plus, in order to stay safe, the volunteers had their freedom curtailed.

"You can't go out and take a walk and those kinds of things," he said. And volunteers often need to leave on short notice. He accepted an assignment that kept him overseas during Thanksgiving and Christmas, something, he said, he won't be doing again.

After being in Nigeria, he accepted an assignment to Sudan, where a tent was the operating room and medical supplies were scarce. He felt he was making a difference, so he agreed to go back. This time, he was sent to Syria.

A key tenet of Doctors Without Borders is that the organization does not take political positions. In Syria, the government wouldn't allow Doctors Without Borders to operate, so Hall was stationed in a mostly rural, rebel-held area, where bombings occurred every day. A civil war has gone on in Syria for two years and has escalated recently, with reports in October of the use of chemical weapons used on civilians.

Hall said talk of politics is discouraged by Doctors Without Borders. It's important for the safety of the medical teams that they be seen as neutral in any conflict, Hall said. Things had changed for the worse from his first trip to Syria in the spring and his most recent trip that covered most of October, he said.

In Syria, he was in a hospital setting, but the country's medical system is under collapse and the challenges were many. Often, he said, he saw patients who could easily have been treated in a fully equipped hospital die because of the lack of access to quality care. He saw the Syrian health-care workers treat family and friends injured by the daily bombings.

He learned that there are limits to what he could do, but he also found new ways to help.

The organization requires a debriefing after each mission and offers psychological support. Hall said he has found that helpful, although it does take a little time for sudden, loud noises in his quiet Hartland neighborhood to not be automatically processed as bombs falling.

Still, he said, he'll go back.

"I get satisfaction out of being of service," he said.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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