14.03.2012

Dr Kirrily de Polnay, MSF doctor, tells us about her experience working in Jamam refugee camp, where people are are surviving in increasingly precarious conditions, with a shortage of food, water and shelter.

Dr Kirrily de Polnay, MSF doctor, tells us about her experience working in Jamam refugee camp, where people are are surviving in increasingly precarious conditions, with a shortage of food, water and shelter.

Treating refugees

Kirrily de Polnay with Asosa Hammad  and her son Aman in the

Kirrily de Polnay with Asosa Hammad and her son Aman in the 'emergency room' of MSF's clinic in Jamam refugee camp
© Robin Meldrum/ MSF

"I’m constantly in the MSF hospital and so kind of isolated from the refugee camp.

So it means that most of the patients you see are very polite, they’ve done that thing that people everywhere around the world do – make themselves look nice for the doctor – so they look nice, they are polite and you can almost forget that you are in a refugee camp, because you get the feeling that they have made an effort.

And it’s only when a child comes in who’s had diarrhoea for one month and they’ve arrived from El Fuj (the border crossing point) the previous night and they’ve had nothing to eat or drink for two days and they’ve had five seizures during that day, that you suddenly remember where you are.

And the parents are so stressed, they’re so worried, and you descend on the child and it’s; drips in, lines in, anyway you can get something in…

Malnourished children

And the children you are dealing with are often malnourished so you have to do everything incredibly gently because you can tip a child into heart failure or into pulmonary oedema so easily.

So it’s a really delicate balance; you’re not dealing with healthy children who have become sick, you’re dealing with children who already have very low reserves.

We have so many cases of diarrhoea and you’re trying to explain to them how to make the ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) and they don’t have anything to make it in.

Even I can find it hard to judge exactly half a sachet, and you tell them, whatever you do you must drink water, you must drink the ORS we give you.

And they nod and say yes, but you know that they do not have enough water to really do that.

Water shortage

Dr Kirrily de Polnay (with Asosa Hammad

Dr Kirrily with Asosa Hammad's son Aman in the 'emergency room' of MSF's clinic
© Robin Meldrum/ MSF

They’ve only got a few litres a day. So what we are prescribing, they don’t have. And so you feel like you are trying to put a tiny plaster on a big haemorrhage.

So far we’ve all been sharing the night shifts. Especially with the severely malnourished children, you have to be constantly there, balancing up giving them enough fluid with not putting them into heart failure.

At the moment we’re able to do that, but I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to work at that kind of pace.

There was one patient, quite young, two or three years old, who came in and we thought, this is it, it’s over for this one.

Luckily we had just installed the oxygen machine, so we started with the oxygen, gave all the treatment, and by the end of the day the kid was complaining that he wanted to go home!

And that is so incredibly pleasurable. When a child starts to annoy you, you know that things are going well. In the end, with cases like that, we keep them in overnight. I mean – he came in dying and you can’t just send him home later the same day…!

But sometimes you get these recoveries where they bounce back like that.

MSF field hospital

You also get some amazing recoveries when we refer a patient to Doro, where MSF has a bigger field hospital. You spend a couple of nights wondering how the patient is doing.

Today for example I saw a little seven-year-old boy who I absolutely did not think was going to make it. He was extremely sick and we don’t have the diagnostics here to know exactly what was wrong.

When he left it was all a bit of a rush, the grandma hadn’t been home, she literally had to get in the car and go right there and then and she was weeping.

It was heartbreaking to see her cry, and you could tell that she was scared and lonely. And she came back today, big smile on her face, shaking everyone’s hand, making the little boy shake everyone’s hand.

And that can make an unbelievably bad day completely bearable.

Overcoming language barriers

Kirrily de Polnay in the

Kirrily de Polnay in the 'emergency room' of MSF's clinic in Jamam refugee camp.
© Robin Meldrum/ MSF

Three-way translation, what a thing… It’s very hard, and the translators get tired, because I’m going through the tribal language and then through Arabic to English and back again.

And frequently you get four children, say, who have come in with the grandma, or an older sister who doesn’t necessarily know exactly what has been happening. And they expect us to be mind readers who can just guess what’s going on. And we try to explain that we cannot help unless they tell us.

But this seems very strange to them, because we have stethoscopes and a stethoscope should be able to work out what’s wrong with anyone, surely? I know that the translators find it hard. Any translation is hard, but this is really hard.

On my first night here there was a very sick child that we were staying up all night with. We were told there was another very sick child at the gate so I went to the gate leaving the sick child alone for a few minutes so I could see the child at the gate.

And as we walked over the guards were killing this massive snake on the ground. And these are the moments you have to laugh because it’s such a ridiculous situation… your headtorch is falling off and you’re falling down the Armageddon cracks in the ground and there’s a huge probably venomous snake.

It’s quite extreme, so if you don’t laugh it’s hard to know what the alternative is."


MSF have been running clinics in Jamam and Doro refugee camps since November last year, as well as providing water facilities.

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