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Physician, heal thyself


A doctor considers the inner turmoil experienced when serving in a war zone

In the aftermath of the horrific Kibeho massacre in Rwanda in 1995, one of my soldiers whispered to me, “I guess it’s all right for you doctors — you are familiar with death”.

Familiar? Yes; we are certainly more familiar with death than the average person, but that does not mean we are not affected by it. Nobody could reflect on the senseless slaughter of 4000 men, women and children, and not be profoundly disturbed by it. Even in civilian practice, there are few deaths that leave doctors completely unmoved. Trauma and violence and premature demise are not limited to acts of war. But as this soldier’s remark demonstrates, doctors are generally expected to carry on regardless.

Those outside the profession seldom have insight into the inner turmoil that military medical officers experience in a war zone. In 1897, when he was a subaltern in the Indian Army, Sir Winston Churchill wrote:

The spectacle of a doctor in action among soldiers, in equal danger and with equal courage, saving life where all others are taking it, allaying pain where all others are causing it, is one which must always seem glorious, whether to God or man.1

I doubt that any doctor in Malakand or Kigali or Kandahar felt glorious in his work.