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Why work in healthcare? An ob/gyn finds fulfillment on the frontlines of war and natural disaster




Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders, is a private nonprofit international association whose mission is to provide lifesaving medical care to those most in need. MSF volunteers frequently work in conflict zones, after natural disasters, during epidemics, and in long-term care settings. The organization emphasizes independence and impartiality.

Dr. Africa Stewart is an American obstetrician/gynecologist who has been on seven volunteer missions with MSF and is a board member of the organization. She has worked in South Sudan and Sierra Leone among other countries, most often treating patients who have been displaced from their homes due to natural disasters or political conflict and who have no access to health care.

HEALTHCARE_MSFBORDER_pregnant woman_mother_sonogram_hands holding_parents

Research has shown that at the MSF-managed neonatal unit in Aweil Hospital, rural South Sudan, where Stewart was assigned, overall mortality declined from 2011 to 2014 despite increasing admissions. MSF provision of emergency obstetric care combined with a functional patient transfer system was associated with a rapid and substantial reduction in maternal mortality in Kabezi district, rural Burundi. In 2015, MSF had 103 projects offering obstetric and newborn care in 28 countries, with 243,300 births assisted, including Caesarean sections.


Why choose a career in healthcare? Stewart derives a lot of satisfaction from being a role model for her children

While the reasons why Stewart’s patients have had to leave their homes vary, their issues are similar, that is women are pregnant and are in need of obstetric care. Her work often involves obstetric emergencies where a pregnant woman is bleeding or in pain and is brought from very faraway for treatment. Delays can be crucial when it comes to pregnant moms, says Stewart, and the consequences can be heartbreaking. The other side of her work is gynecological, and that too can be emotional. Rape is a tool of war, and Stewart regularly treats women who are victims of such atrocities. Furthermore, when home isn’t safe anymore and people are forced to migrate, it can be hard to travel as a woman. HEALTHCARE_MSFBORDER_woman mother and baby smiling Stewart typically spends 8 to 10 weeks a year in the field. The remainder of the year is spent caring for her children and working part time as a “temp” obstetrician/gynecologist in her home city of Atlanta. She has managed to carve out a workable arrangement that permits her to focus her professional energy on her MSF work, which is her passion. She has been able to balance work and family in large part due to a supportive network of friends, neighbors, and family. Why choose a career in healthcare? Stewart derives a lot of satisfaction from being a role model for her children. She is proud that her children are growing up in an “environment of service.” She wants them to understand that hard work is good for you, and to be “givers not takers.” There is plenty of room for well-trained, adventurous doctors, Stewart advises, and like-minded folks who are aware of the obstacles can help in figuring them out. The work can be once in a lifetime or a regular thing, and the first step is to sit down and talk with someone involved in the work. She says her initial impetus for doing international aid work was ignorance – she thought she’d be “roughing it for a while.” Her recommendation to those just starting out: “go into the field and do something amazing.”    
[1] Thomson, J.; Schaefer, M.; Caminoa, B.; Kahindi, D.; Hurtado N. (2017). Improved neonatal mortality at a District Hospital in Aweil, South Sudan. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, 63(3), 189-195. DOI: 10.1093/tropej/fmw071
[2] Tayler-Smith, K.; Zachariah, R.; Manzi, M.; Van den Boogaard, W.; Nyandwi, G.; Reid, T.; et al. (2013). Achieving the millennium development goal of reducing maternal mortality in rural Africa: an experience from Burundi. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 18(2), 166-74. DOI: 10.1111/tmi.12022
Header Image Credit: Dennis Wegewijs /
Body Image Credit: Nancy Haggarty /
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