Annapolis Valley woman working with Doctors Without Borders

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Sara Ericsson - TC Media

KINGS COUNTY - Many moments have touched Anne MacKinnon’s heart during her work with Doctors Without Borders.

New Brunswick resident Anne MacKinnon, who grew up in Kings County, has been working with Médecins sans frontieres for four years.

While interviewing refugees in Liberia, the Kings County native met a woman with three small children. The young mother had escaped conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, living solely on roots and berries for three weeks en route to refuge across the border in Liberia.

Her husband was lost. Apart from the children, MacKinnon could see no one who had come with the young woman. As she continued the interview, an elderly woman came and sat next to them.

“That is my mother,” the young woman said. “I carried her here on my back.”

MacKinnon has heard other stories like the young woman’s in her four years with the organization, also known as Médecins sans frontieres (MSF).  She has been on three missions and was recently elected to the group’s Canadian board of directors.

The daughter of Rocky and Flo Hazel, MacKinnon grew up in Kings County. She began her medical career as a nurse in neo-natal intensive care with the IWK in Halifax. After a move to Fredericton, MacKinnon began working with a local organization that traveled to Haiti to provide medical aid. Her interest in the work of non-governmental organizations led her to apply to MSF.

Even with her previous experiences in Haiti and a training mission in Barcelona, MacKinnon said she was unprepared for what awaited her on each mission.

“Until you get there, you don’t know what you will be faced with,” she said.

Her first mission was to India in 2009, where MSF was giving aid to malnourished children aged six months to five years. An outpatient facility -  where vaccinations and a special food supply called plumpy butter, which provides essential nutrients and minerals, were delivered to patients – was set up.

“I worked all hours that I was awake,” she said of the mission.

MacKinnon was an integral and innovative part of her team in India. Most malnourished children experienced chronic diarrhea so often it was accepted as normal and mothers would use their saris to clean their children. MacKinnon saw this and decided to create a solution. Careful to observe cultural considerations, MacKinnon created a reusable diaper. She had the template designed in England and hired a local tailor in India to produce the mass order. Ensuring that these would be sustainable, they were created out of local materials that could be washed and reused easily. 

“One of the things I love about MSF in the field is my staff, who are always competent, caring and compassionate,” said MacKinnon, added that they were so dedicated they often did not want to take their leave. As her experience grew, she understood the value in support networks and accepted that rest periods were crucial. The organization mandates rest periods for its staff away from the medical camp so that they may relax and recover, both physically and mentally.

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Dedication was crucial during missions to Liberia in 2011 and Ethiopia in 2012. In Liberia, there were large numbers of refugees. While working in one area, MacKinnon and her staff would learn of villages of 1,500 people being flooded with 6000 refugees.

Travelling to aid the villagers and refugees, it was impossible to see everyone. On one occasion, the MSF group encountered a field crowded with mothers and malnourished babies. The mothers looked at MacKinnon and the other employees, and silently lifted their babies into the air.

“We just said we’d see as many as possible,” said MacKinnon. By 3 p.m., medical staff had seen half. Because of the organization’s diligence in ensuring the security of their staff, regulations must always be adhered to. Many of the refugees could not be treated by the team, as MacKinnon had to comply with the 6 p.m. curfew.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, saying we had to leave.”

Security is a high priority for MSF, for good reason. During her mission to Ethiopia in 2012, MacKinnon and her team were living in tents in the desert with limited food and water. They were required to radio in every 15 minutes, and travel in convoys of three vehicles. An incident during the mission highlighted the danger for the group: a local government representative ordered the mission leader into a car with him by force.  

Having experience in both the field and board settings, MacKinnon praises the MSF organization, whose motto is impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Eighty per cent of its funding comes from individual sponsors, which allows it the  independence to provides unbiased medical aid to critical areas all over the world.

Transparency is an important priority for MSF, she said.

“When people are giving money, they want to know that it is going exactly where they think it is,” MacKinnon said, adding that 80 cents from every dollar goes directly to funding missions.

She sees her role  as small in the grand scheme of things, but vital.

 “I’m not going to fix all of the political unrest, diseases, or poverty, but I can cure this one child and prevent more suffering,” MacKinnon said. “That’s all you can do.”

Organizations: Médecins sans frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, MSF organization

Geographic location: Liberia, Kings, India Annapolis Valley Haiti Halifax Fredericton Barcelona Ethiopia England

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