ER physician leaves the battlefield to train humanitarian doctors

Michael VanRooyen, M.D., tells STAT he once had a young soldier in Zaire put the barrel of a machine gun in his mouth. So he knows what other doctors might face as he trains the next generation of humanitarian doctors.

VanRooyen, who has worked in 30 different war and disaster zones, is now training other doctors who are willing to take on a humanitarian mission under dangerous conditions at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, according to STAT.  

Whether it’s working as a humanitarian doctor overseas or volunteering their time in this country, physicians have found such actions can bring them closer to the reasons they went into medicine in the first place.

But in places like Syria where doctors have been attacked and hospitals bombed, humanitarian aid workers can no longer rely on the fact they are with relief organizations to keep them from harm. Doctors in Syria are risking their lives to treat casualties of the country’s civil war, as the government has killed hundreds of medical workers and ISIS has assassinated dozens of doctors, according to a ProPublica report.

While he is now working as chairman of the emergency department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and training other medical workers, “I miss it a lot, actually,” the 54-year-old doctor, who has written a book “The World’s Emergency Room” about humanitarian medicine, told the publication.

Part of the training is teaching doctors how to handle unnerving situations. Since recruiting child soldiers is common in many African countries, during simulation-based training, VanRooyen creates situations in which medical workers cross paths with hostile and armed child and teen soldiers.

“It sounds silly, but ultimately it’s about treating them nicely. I speak calmly and respectfully and give them something like gum or cigarettes and tell them I’m a doctor and offer to help if they need it. I ask their name, where they come from, and tell them mine. It personalizes it for them, which I think makes it a lot harder for them to abuse you,” he told STAT.

- read the interview