18 Apr 2024

Inspiring Speakers on International Women’s day

The Girls Rising group hosted four outstanding speakers on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2024. The speakers, all from very different backgrounds, told remarkable stories of overcoming challenges and how they became stronger because of it. 

This week we introduce the final speaker, Doctor Shannon Chan. In 2014, Dr Chan joined Médecins Sans Frontières. MSF is an international humanitarian NGO working in war-torn and underdeveloped regions. On International Women’s Day Dr. Chan talked about her surgical missions to South Sudan and Yemen.

Dr Chan is an Assistant Professor and Head of Upper Gastrointestinal Metabolic Surgery of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is an honorary associate consultant in the Division of Upper gastrointestinal and metabolic surgery working in the Prince of Wales Hospital. 

In 2014, Dr Chan joined Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders). MSF is an international humanitarian NGO working in war-torn and underdeveloped regions. On International Women’s Day Dr. Chan talked about her surgical missions to South Sudan and Yemen. 

Chan started her presentation by showing the audience a few minutes of a MSF documentary that was shortlisted for an Oscar. The imagery was horrendous! The images of war and what is expected of the medical teams in war zones is shocking.  The primitive conditions, the mental stress and physical pressure on medics was difficult to watch, even for a few minutes.

Chan explained what humanitarian work is, to provide materials or logistical assistance for humanitarian purposes. She said, “Our [MSF] aim basically is to save lives, alleviate suffering and to maintain human dignity.” She explained that there are several NGOs with similar aims or mandates however MSF is independent, impartial, and neutral. “The decision to respond is based solely on our independent assessment of medical needs.”
“MSF also encourages humanitarians to bare witness – speak up when we see unfairness. But there is a risk that we [doctors] might be kicked out of the country.”

Following Chan’s medical training as a doctor she then went through a surgical fellowship, and she completed her general surgery training in 2014. She said, “Out in the field doctors need to “cross cover” or be able to do everything so MSF provides GAS training (Gynecology, Anaesthetics, Surgery). 

Chan’s first mission was to South Sudan, in the Middle of Africa. She said, “People there are very poor and there is on and off fighting. Chan showed photos of a hospital with rusting lights and aircon units – useless without electricity. 

“The first time I went to the hospital all the wards were empty and I thought great, no patients! But the hospital roof is metal and the wards are very very hot. All the patients had moved outside under the mango trees.” 

“To create a surgical theatre in the shortest amount of time we [MSF] built a tent. MSF can build a surgical team and operating centre within 48 hours. This is what they do in emergency situations such as earthquakes.”

“The most important thing for an operating theatre is sterility so we [the doctors] have to keep all the windows closed to keep the insects out and there is no air flow in 37c of heat. So as you can imagine the working conditions are quite challenging. When I need to do surgery I need to call the technician and get fuel from him and go to the generator to make sure it is working.” 

Chan explained that one of the biggest challenges on any mission is the lack of resources. No electricity, everything is expired – her mum had to send her the right size gloves (critically important with a very high risk of HIV in the country). 

Chan’s day started with a safety briefing at 7:30am and ward rounds at 8am. “There is a very strict curfew at 6:30pm. If any expat is missing or injured then the whole mission will be closed down because it poses a life threatening risk. MSF drivers take us from home to the hospital. If I need to travel at night – to operate I have to get special permission. MSF medics don’t care about having to do extra work, they just want the mission to work and we are all of a like mind.”

One of Chan’s patients was a seven year old boy with a broken arm. He was in hospital for a while for rehabilitation and – patient and doctor became good friends so much so that the boy asked Chan to marry him. In South Sudan the beauty of a woman is judged on her height with the average height being 1.8 metres. Cows are offered as part of the marriage proposal and Chan was offered 56 cows to marry her new friend. A number she was delighted by – as earlier in the mission her driver had told her that she was worth one goat!

She said, “Food in general gets boring but every two weeks we would get eggs. We would write our names on our eggs and  sometimes gamble with them.” But on Christmas day MSF sent the medical team a better meal. 

Chan’s second mission was to Mahra in Yemen. Despite heavy bombing in the area she got the go-ahead to go. “The security in Yemen was not the best and following some bombing close to the hospital we [the medical team] had to hide in a safe room for a week while the war went on before we could return to the hospital and treat our patients.” 

“In Yemen women have to cover their neck, hair, ankles and elbows. Women can only show their eyes. At home we only need to cover our hair, not our faces. People think it is impossible for a woman to become a surgeon because they can’t walk out of the house by themselves. Men do not allow women to touch them so all the surgeons were male. So imagine me going there and taking over and telling people to do things for me. It was not the easiest job.” 

MSF provides good internet for medics at home, “We need it to keep us sane and I could watch surgical videos on YouTube.”

Chan talked about the surgeries she did, the cases she treated and she shared more shocking images of patient suffering – with many people in the audience looking away. 

The stories of new life were easier to handle, Chan delivered lots of babies including: triplets, another baby was named after her and she delivered two babies on her birthday. She said, “Saving the mother – safes the whole family. Babies are breastfed so the mother must survive.” 

She met lots of women on her mission and they quickly became friends. On her birthday they danced and ate cake together. Chan explained what it is like to be part of a team working in exceptionally challenging conditions, “My colleagues were very supportive. Colleagues both in Hong Kong and the doctors I met in- the- field. Tell the people next to you that you love them. Never take anyone for granted.” 

Five MSF doctors have been killed while on missions this year. Chan’s words were very powerful. She and some of us within the audience became overwhelmed. 

Chan encouraged everyone to read An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century. A 2008 memoir written by James Orbinski M.D., the former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières.

She read some of the quotes from the book, “Animals can be cruel but only humans can be rationally cruel. Only humans can call such sacrifice into question in the name of political or religious freedoms.”  

“There is a good we can be if we so choose.” 

Chan closed by repeating the quote, we can change the world with one random act of kindness at a time.