Now on a hiatus from field work to raise a family, Malaysian paediatrician Dr Wong Poh Fei shares advice for future humanitarians and the most empowering takeaways from her Doctors without Borders missions in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and other countries
In 2014, Dr Wong Poh Fei joined Medecins Sans Frontieres (or Doctors Without Borders) in response to her lifelong dream to serve and make a difference where it was most needed.
“I have always wanted to do more, contribute more,” says the Malaysian paediatrician who is based in Australia on a break from field work to spend time with her family. “Once you embark on the normal path a medical graduate takes in Malaysia, you get so caught up in work. So this idea of doing more got shelved until one day I decided ‘if not now, then when?’. Doctors Without Borders was the perfect choice as medical expertise is my strong suit."
Her first mission was to Sierra Leone to work with a small team of paediatricians to keep operations running at the MSF-run Gondama Referral Center during the Ebola epidemic.
The next few missions would take her to Afghanistan, South Sudan and South Africa, where her work ranged from running health centres in refugee camps to managing neonatology departments of maternity hospitals.
“Being a field worker is definitely not a walk in the park, and certainly not if you have overly romanticised ideas of an aid worker. But I can promise you, it could be potentially life-changing. As a wise person once told me, 'If you don’t know where to start, begin anywhere'.”
Wong recounts the experiences that changed her life as she contemplates a return to the field soon for a family mission.
Tell us about your first mission with Doctors Without Borders.
Going to Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola epidemic was also the first time I set foot on the African continent. Doctors Without Borders ran a mother and child referral hospital in Bo, a small town in Sierra Leone.
Joining a team of national and international staff working hand-in-hand saving lives daily was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. There was no time to pause as Ebola quickly ravaged the country and very soon, we all faced an uphill challenge of keeping the hospital running as the children still needed treatment for malnutrition and severe malaria, some of the leading causes of death for children under 5.
One of the greatest lessons I learnt in Sierra Leone was that non-Ebola patients during a pandemic matter just as much as patients stricken with the pandemic disease. What is most important is supporting the healthcare system to ensure everyone's needs are met.
What was your experience like in Afghanistan and South Sudan?
When you hear Afghanistan, stereotypical images based on what you have read or heard come to mind. No doubt sporadic shootings, explosions and security incidents are a norm here, but that is not the whole truth.
I was humbled by the beauty and kindness of the Afghans who treated me as a friend and colleague, and had gone above and beyond to show me kindness. When I was leaving, one of my Afghan colleagues told me, "I wish one day you could come back when my country is at peace. Then you will be able to see how beautiful the real Afghanistan is outside these hospital walls."
In South Sudan, I was working in a MSF-run health centre inside one of the largest refugee camps in Maban county. Living conditions were the most basic, and we lived in tukuls (mud huts). Eggs were a priceless commodity and rationed so we had eggs with our names on it. Being in South Sudan completely changed my perspective of necessity. It is so freeing to know what you actually need and what you can do without, and you will be surprised to learn what you can do without. To quote Calvin and Hobbes: “I am grateful that I do not want the things which I don’t have”.
It is freeing to know what you actually need and what you can do without, and you will be surprised to learn what you can do without."
What are the greatest leadership lessons that you learned growing up that benefit you in the field?
I’ve learnt to be self-sufficient and resourceful. In my adult years, I’ve learned the importance of being authentic and kind. I think it’s a combination of all of these that have carried me through some of the most challenging and difficult moments in my life, from physical and mental exhaustion right up to life-threatening moments.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership is something organic that blooms as you grow in years and in experience. It does not come with a title but rather how an individual responds in a situation and is able to bring people together to achieve a common goal.
These days, leadership brings on a whole new meaning for me as I strive to be a gentle leader to my two-and-a-half year old toddler as I navigate respectful parenting with her. I am also settling into a new role within Doctors Without Borders as part of the governance structure by being on the board of directors of Doctors Without Borders Hong Kong.
What do you think are the main challenges faced by female leaders in the humanitarian field?
We work in so many different countries with so many different cultures and norms and with team members from all over the world. I expected to face prejudice and discrimination but I also expected to overcome it professionally and with kindness.
When I was in Afghanistan, I was a young Chinese female paediatrician in my 30s leading a team of five senior male Afghan paediatricians. Most of them were likely to be two decades older than me. It goes without saying that I faced prejudices from them. However, I asserted myself and showed them that I was much more than their prejudice and limiting views. As a result, we became a tight-knit team.
How soon before you'll be returning to your work in the field?
It will be difficult to say when, with all the uncertainties the world is facing right now but I would embrace the possibility of a family mission with open arms.
Do you think returning to the field will be a challenging adjustment for you?
For sure, especially if I return on a family mission. Balancing field work and family life will be a huge challenge, especially whilst in the field but I am grateful that Doctors Without Borders provides this opportunity for their field workers.
What advice would you give to young women going into the humanitarian field?
Sometimes you have to take a leap. There may never be the right time. Straying from the normal path that we as clinicians were taught and familiar with can be scary.
Whatever you choose to do, do it with 'heart'. It sounds very cliché, but when you are guided by your internal compass to have integrity and kindness, it shows in your actions and in your work. We all know the world could do with a little more kindness right now.
What has your work at Doctors Without Borders taught you about tenacity?
Working with Doctors Without Borders has given me more than I had ever imagined. I had been given the privilege to walk amongst giants in the humanitarian field and worked with incredible people who came from all walks of life. We were all bounded by a common goal, to bring quality medical care to those who need it the most.
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