Meet the real life Doctor Dare

Apr 17, 2015, 17:51 IST


As part of Médecins Sans Frontières, Dr Kalyani Gomathinayagam has visited various countries to help victims of natural disasters, malnutrition, malaria and Ebola, as well as
refugees of civil war and local conflict. She speaks to Healthntrends about the satisfaction of practising medicine in some of the world’s most dangerous places.



Since 2010, Dr Kalyani Gomathinayagam has travelled to several conflict- and epidemicprone parts of Africa such as the Ivory Coast, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia—they are not exactly must-see places on the intrepid traveller’s list. Then again Kalyani is not your run-of-the-mill curious traveller. This physician from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, has been working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders for the past fi ve years.

Her last assignment, in August 2014, was in Foya, a border town in Liberia, where she was the only Indian doctor working to save the lives of the highly contagious Ebola-affected
patients. “I was there for over fi ve weeks and it was the most challenging of all assignments,” she says. Clearly, Dr Gomathinayagam enjoys taking on challenges. “I like working where there is a need for medical care in a vulnerable population and in emergency contexts. I find great satisfaction in helping people who are in acute need of medical attention.”

In love with challenges It all started when she was quite young. “When I was in high school, a close relative passed away. I’ll never forget the way he looked at his doctor, with so much hope. It affected me and I decided that I wanted to pursue medicine.” After graduating from Madurai Medical College, Dr Gomathinayagam moved away from home to rural Kerala, where she practised medicine for seven years. “That is where I learnt everything—from how to interact with the patient to how to live on my own. I gained knowledge and self-confi dence.”

Wanting a change from the country life of a general practitioner, Dr Gomathinayagam next chose to work as a medical offi cer with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). “I liked their way of life, the discipline and how they took care of each other. Besides, it gave me many opportunities to do what I liked for free—trekking and walking.” She may make light of the fact, but during the time Kalyani worked in extremely isolated regions on the border, in Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and even at Kailash-Mansarovar. While with ITBP, a posting with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force took her to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she witnessed the amazing work that MSF does. “I saw them giving medical care exactly when it was needed the most. The way they handled medical emergencies and their work philosophy appealed to me.”



Haiti’s earthquake squad Her first assignment with MSF was in Haiti in 2010. “Every project is different. Even within each country, the project can be different depending on the nature of the emergency. When I was in Haiti, I was working with six Haitian doctors as support and, since the health situation had completely failed, we were giving primary care. During my second mission in 2011 to the Ivory Coast, which was seeing a lot of internal fi ghting, I was in charge of mobile clinics. Here, I was looking for ‘serious’ problems, like malnutrition and violence against women.”

The cost of war in the Ivory Coast
So many women and children were survivors of gender violence—a direct fallout of the internal fighting—that Dr Gomathinayagam and the MSF team ended up starting sexual
and gender violence clinics in Ivory Coast. “This issue is so sensitive. My world view changed when I saw what had happened to these kids. Single mothers would come in with
a child for an incident that happened months ago and the child would readily show their wounds—they were so used to the violence.”



Mission Ebola in Liberia
Then in August 2014, Dr Gomathinayagam chose one of her toughest challenges by opting to volunteer at a 40-bedded management centre in Liberia for six weeks, where Ebola
cases were being reported. “The mortality rate with Ebola is very high. So we had strict protocols to follow, and were provided protection equipment. But this also changed
the doctor-patient relationship, as the patient could only see our eyes and hear our voice.”

“We had to take turns going in to visit patients—we could only spend a maximum of one hour in the ICU. But in some ways, it also meant dealing with the patient more closely. The patients were with doctors in yellow suits in their last moments, and not their family. And everyone wants human comfort around them…sometimes it is the most you can offer.” The doctors were at risk of contracting Ebola and every headache was cause for anxiety. Once she fi nished her assignment, Dr Gomathinayagam was sent to Geneva for a three-week self-imposed quarantine. And then she fl ew back to her family in India. Back home in Madurai, just after Diwali, her parents—her father, who was a state government employee and mother, a schoolteacher—sister, and several nephews celebrated her arrival with a collective sigh of relief.

“Everyone worries a lot about me, but they also understand why I need to do this. Besides, I make sure I call them every day, no matter where I am. My nephews think I am
a cool aunt,” she smiles. A couple of months of rest, and Dr Gomathinayagam will pick another challenge with MSF in a new country. Watch out for this indomitable force of healing,
this frequent fl ier with a heart—this is what Superwoman really looks like.


Dr Gomathinayagam’s project in 2012 was in Chad, where she tended to children suffering from malnutrition. “We would see severely malnourished children who would not have survived without help. But within two weeks of treatment, the children would get better—it was immensely rewarding.”

A year later, she found herself in Chad again—this time at a refugee camp to tend to people injured in the fi ghting between two tribes across the border. “Some of these people had never seen a hospital. If they fell ill or got injured, they had to go to Sudan. There were no roads, no electricity or water. There was a lot of fi ghting with guns and grenades. All we could do was stabilise people injured in such attacks and then fl y them to another place where the surgeons were based. Sometimes, when the situation permitted the fl ight
would land and, at other times, we would just wait.”

In Chad, Dr Gomathinayagam witnessed an incident that left a deep impact on her. “There was a grenade lying around, and kids in that area were poking it with a stick. It went off, injuring six of them. One of the little boys was a spunky, mischievous fellow, who probably had internal bleeding. He was talkative and kept pestering us, and we grew fond of him. After the surgery, he suddenly passed away. Everyone was demoralised. What is the idea behind fighting for a piece of land? Why is it so important that lives cease to matter?”