NASA MARIA ENTABAN email@example.com
CHEATING death has become a part of Dr Winson Seow’s life.
Over the past two years, by pure chance, he has escaped bullets, beatings, and car bombings. As a military doctor serving on the UN Medical Relief Mission, 26-year-old Dr Seow knows that every day might be his last, having watched many friends and colleagues perish in the line of duty.
“You’ve known them for years, you have breakfast together … then the next minute they are gone,” says Dr Seow, eyes downcast. “One time, we were transporting patients in 10 vehicles to our clinic at the base, and we didn’t know the first vehicle had been planted with a bomb. In a second, people had died, friends, colleagues, people I knew and liked.”
This is just one story – Dr Seow has countless other similar anecdotes, each one ending with death and tragedy.
Dr Seow, who hails from Malacca, began his medical studies with the intention of becoming a plastic surgeon. Soon after, he changed his mind about his career path during a near-death experience (he was on a long-haul flight that nearly crashed) and has never looked back since then.
Working with an NGO attached to the mission, which provides medical assistance, international healthcare, emergency response and security services in conflict and disaster areas, Dr Seow has seen it all.
Since graduating with a double degree in medicine and psychology, he has served as a trauma surgeon in Somalia, India, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Kenya, Libya, Haiti and Senegal.
At the end of this month, he will return to Somalia and as always, does not know if he will come back at the end of this stint.
“The last few hours of my leave, I spend with my family and close friends, to let them know that I love them,” says Dr Seow, who is away for months at a time, the longest stretch being eight months. Dr Seow, who initially faced some opposition from his father, a traditional Chinese medical doctor, returns home at every opportunity to spend time with loved ones, even if it is only for three days.
On the battlefield, Dr Seow’s job is treating critical wounds such as bullet wounds, loss of limbs and extreme burns, One of the toughest parts of the job is deciding who gets saved, and who gets left behind.
“We probably have 100 patients at any given time, and with only about 11 of us medics, we have to make decisions quickly,” explains Dr Seow, who usually works 48 hours straight with only three-to-five hours’ rest to look forward to.
For example, if the bullet has hit someone’s artery, the doctors will probably leave the patient behind because his chances of survival is lower.
“We don’t have enough doctors, vehicles or medicine to help everyone; priority goes to those who will more likely survive. Everytime I have to make a decision, it’s like a T-junction – whatever decision you make, there are people who will die anyway.
“The only wounded people we do not treat are those wearing the bright green wristband that indicates they have signed a ‘Do Not Rescue’ contract, which essentially means they have agreed to be left behind if they are critically wounded,” notes Dr Seow, who also wears the same bright green wristband on his right hand.
This job isn’t for everyone – many of Dr Seow’s colleagues find themselves unable to adapt to the shocking realities of war.
“It’s not anything like the movies, it is completely diferent. People are dying, screaming, panicking, crying, and terrorists shoot everyone, no matter who you are – doctors, children … anyone,” says Dr Seow.
No matter how tired he gets or how much suffering he has seen, Dr Seow has to remain positive and upbeat for the sake of his patients, and to keep up the morale of those in base camp.
“You have to have strong control over your emotions, or you’ll go crazy,” he adds. “When you see friends die, or suffer, you have to keep telling yourself that you can’t cry, because as a doctor you have to keep smiling and keep calm, if you want to make the right decisions.”
Being surrounded by gunfire, bombings, death and suffering for months at a time and having to move every three days to avoid detection from terrorists in war-torn countries takes its toll on aid workers and doctors, Dr Seow included.
Even on vacation, it is a challenge for the doctor to find peace – the only person he can talk to about his work and the trauma he goes through is a psychiatrist, who helps him deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder which plagues him in the form of constant nightmares, a fear of crowds and the feeling of restlessness.
“In a war zone you can’t tell anyone how you feel, because most of them are depressed and traumatised; you have to keep it in your heart,” Dr Seow shares. He also does not tell his family any details of his job.
Amid the disarray in his daily life, Dr Seow does find peace and joy – in the form of children’s laughter and smiles.
In Somalia, where children as young as seven are taught to hold weapons, load bullets and kill, teaching them how to sing, dance and play football brings him immense joy.
“We teach them about HIV/AIDS prevention, sanitising water, and how to have fun and smile. I may never have my own family but I have children around the world,” says Dr Seow, who has adopted orphans in Haiti, and helps fund an orphanage there.
While on his break, Dr Seow volunteers his time as a school counsellor/psychiatist at his former school, Pay Fong High School in Malacca. Currently, he is also going around the country sharing his experiences through the “Julie’s Share The Love” campaign, a movement which celebrates unsung heroes in the community.
Last year, the campaign shed some light on every day “heroes” who serve the community like policemen, road builders, media officers, garbage collectors and firemen.
Later this year, Dr Seow will release a book titled To Serve With Love which will document his journey.
Working in disaster areas has taught Dr Seow a number of lessons, but most importantly, it has also taught him to appreciate everything he has and to care for others.
“When you save one life and they survive, and they are reunited with their families … that is more valuable than any amount of money. I always tell myself that life is challenging but you have to carry on.
“Even thoughpeople die, you still have to fix your patients. I want to be a doctor that can serve people and show love to people that need help,” he concludes.