‘Helping the sick is why I studied medicine’ 

Nathalie Clavier is a French anesthetist who goes on short assignments every year for the ICRC. She shares her thoughts on the five years she has been working with the ICRC.


Her motivation

Initially, I was not keen on working for the ICRC as I was scared of seeing fighting and violence. However, after talking to ICRC anesthetists and the HR department, I applied, and was offered a first assignment in South Sudan. I set off thinking: “If I can’t handle it, I can just come home.” But, somehow, I was able to cope well and stay calm in stressful situations.

In my home country, France, health care has become a business. It makes me sad, as this is not why I studied medicine. With the ICRC, I can help people who would not be able to get treatment otherwise. This is very satisfying and, on top of it, I am paid well for doing this job. I am not volunteering, nor am I giving up my life to do it. I did not know it was possible to do humanitarian work in good living conditions and with good pay.


A day in the life

Every assignment with the ICRC is different. For example, in Afghanistan, I mainly carried out assessments of the situation and held training for local staff. I did not take part in many operations. Now I am in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I am the only anesthetist on the spot. I am on call all the time. Sometimes you have to do the job alone with limited techniques, drugs and equipment available. At other times you have excellent equipment and enough drugs.

I love anesthetics. It is a hands-on job based on teamwork: you make it possible for the surgeon to do his or her job, while preventing the patient from suffering or even dying. But the part I like most is training and teaching colleagues. We work with nurse anesthetists, usually nurses who have had some training in anesthesia, to improve their skills. Their knowledge of physiology is often very scant; they hardly know how blood flows through the body. It is your task to find out what they already know and what are the most important things they should learn. For example, I held a training session on how we swallow, using videos I found online. It might seem simple, but you need to adapt your approach to people’s language and culture. I learned the hard way when I realized that some of my colleagues were just trying to make me happy by nodding and smiling, but they did not understand what I was saying!

"I work for a hospital in France and I take unpaid leave about once a year to go on assignments of three or six months with the ICRC."

I also love the fact that I can combine these assignments with my permanent job. I work for a hospital in France and I take unpaid leave about once a year to go on assignments of three or six months with the ICRC. It is an arrangement I have made with the hospital. I usually work for them during the busier periods, such as the summer, and that keeps them happy.


An unforgettable patient

I will never forget an older woman I met in South Sudan. She arrived at our hospital with a terrible wound on her leg. The wound was wrapped in banana leaves and the bones were held in place with a self-made splint consisting of two huge wooden spoons. When we unwrapped the wound, we saw it was infected and full of worms. She had been shot two weeks earlier while working in her field and had endured this pain the whole time. If we had not intervened, she would have died in unbearable suffering. This would be unimaginable in my country. We treated her as best we could, but we were unable to save her leg. We had to amputate it, but at least she survived and we referred her to our colleagues, who gave her a prosthesis.


The colleagues

"If you work with people with such different experiences from yours, you constantly need to reset your mind."


Working for the ICRC is a fantastic human adventure! I have already learned so much from my colleagues about the job and about myself. Things that seem evident to you may not be as evident to the Pakistani surgeon you are working with, for example. If you work with people with such different experiences from yours, you constantly need to reset your mind. I have learned that there are different truths to everything.


What it takes

You need to have a good level of maturity and be aware of your limits, weaknesses and needs. Which mechanisms do you have to manage your anxiety, sadness, sometimes solitude, irritability or misunderstandings with colleagues? The ICRC does a lot to help its staff cope with stress management, but you need to take good care of your mental health yourself. This being said, if an ICRC assignment makes sense to you and you are able to work with simple tools, drugs and equipment while using your skills and training differently, then give it a try! The gratification you will get from the job is amazing. I have had the chance to have wonderful experiences and perform tasks I would never do in France, as a specialist would take care of them there. I do humanitarian work because it gives meaning to my life, but also because I love being abroad, meeting new people and learning from different cultures.