Medicine in Dangerous Times

Mar 21, 2017

Professor Anna BanerjiProfessor Anna Banerji From its earliest days, the students, professors and alumni of this Faculty have sought to deliver medical care in the midst of adversity. Among the most well-known is Dr. Norman Bethune, who interrupted his medical studies to join the No. 2 Field Ambulance Medical Corps at the outbreak of the First World War. He went on to provide care during the Spanish Civil War, developing the first blood-transfusion truck in the process, and traveled to China where he was a battlefield surgeon. The odds were long, but the need was great and Bethune, like others from U of T Medicine, answered the call.

March marks Red Cross Month. It’s an important reminder not only of historical challenges, but the ongoing need to provide medical care in the midst of strife and natural disasters. From this summer’s forest fires in Fort McMurray to the nearly 15-million people now left hungry due to drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, volunteers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are on hand to provide aid and support to populations in need.

As a Canadian Red Cross Delegate, I have seen these hardships personally. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I spent a month near Port-au-Prince with the Red Cross as Chief of pediatrics in a tent hospital. I first became a delegate in 1998, driven by my interest in international health. I later became part of the Emergency Response Unit; ready to be deployed anywhere on short notice. It’s a big commitment, and one that becomes more difficult as life’s other obligations — such as motherhood, in my case — demand our attention and devotion. But we all must consider how we would respond if called upon.
I suspect I am not alone in feeling the world is becoming increasingly unstable. Armed conflicts continue, old rivalries have reignited, and new threats loom. And global climate change presents new challenges, as basic natural resources like water can become the basis for new standoffs and the magnitude of natural disasters grows. Be it refugees and migrants, climate events, or armed conflict, we in Canada can no longer consider these distant threats.

It could be easy to give over to despair, but instead I think we should see these as a call to action. How are we in the Faculty of Medicine preparing our students to respond in the future, and how are we harnessing our collective strengths to deliver humanitarian aid today? We have begun to answer those questions through our expanding global health efforts, such as the Global Health Education Initiative in the Post-MD program and similar efforts in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Though these are good starts, we could go much further in integrating these activities not only within the health sector, but throughout U of T. A great example for us to consider is the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which is “a university-wide academic and research center at Harvard University that brings an interdisciplinary approach to promoting understanding of humanitarian crisis as a unique contributor to global health problems and to developing evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance.”
Given U of T’s breadth and depth, coupled with our commitment to partnership and global perspective, we are uniquely positioned to be an international leader in delivering care in dangerous times. The need has never been higher, but will we answer the call?  

Anna Banerji
Faculty Lead, Indigenous and Refugee Health
Post MD Education
Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto


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