The first time I heard of Rwanda was on my honeymoon. My husband was reading about it in the news and he said: “I think you are going to have to go to this place.” I’d been on an army scholarship through university and was just beginning my mandated return of service. Sure enough, a few weeks after I got back my commander was sounding me out to go there. They were putting together a medical unit and, for the first time in history, it was the doctors, nurses and support staff as the main force, with the infantry and engineers as support rather than the other way round. Even though I knew it would be a terrible experience in lots of ways, I decided to put my hand up. Next thing I know, I was in the capital, Kigali. When we arrived at our little hospital, the first thing we had to do was clean. It had been bombed and there was literally blood on the walls, IV poles that had just been ripped out of people’s arms and unspeakable things that had been shoved down toilets. Eventually we found an operating theatre and in it was this Italian surgeon called Gino, who had been the only doctor in the town for a month because everybody else had fled or been killed. We walked in and said, ‘Hi, we are doctors from Australia’ and he went ‘right, come over here’ and literally said ‘see one, do one, teach one’. So he amputated somebody’s leg and then I did the next one. What got me through the next six-and-a-half months was the friendships I formed with the people around me. Although, I remember seriously considering taking up smoking as a means of relaxation! Fortunately I didn’t, but we did socialise and have fun, which helped a lot. Of course, there were no phones or internet access but there were lots of reporters around and, in fact, that is how my husband knew I was alive — because he kept seeing me on CNN. Now I run a practice a world away in Canberra and, despite the experience, I don’t really consider myself any tougher than your typical suburban mum or middle-aged female GP. My experience in Rwanda doesn’t influence how I deal with my staff, but it can impact my interactions with patients. A lot of them are veterans and I think they respect the fact that I have seen active duty. More than that though, it has taught me to be more tolerant of all the things we are capable of as human beings. Not just the terrible things we can do to each other, but all the things we can endure. And we can endure a lot, actually.

Dr Michelle Barrett
Canberra, ACT