On my very first assignment with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), I found myself in a hospital in Aweil, in what is today the independent nation of South Sudan.
I will never forget the experience of caring for a mother with two-year-old twin girls who had been admitted with early signs of premature labor. My youngest daughter was about the same age as her twins, and I gladly eased my homesickness at this woman's bedside while doing morning rounds.
She stayed at our hospital for weeks, until one day her labor came fast and naturally. We were expecting another set of twins, but instead delivered not two but three healthy babies. They were born girl, girl, boy, and their mother gave them my names: Africa, Nicole, and Stewart. She did this partly because of our bond but also in the hopes that their “American” names might give them greater opportunities. I was honored and moved—I still am.
When I ﬁrst returned from that assignment, I was reluctant to share the stories of our patients. I wasn’t sure if their stories were my stories to tell. But slowly, I started to open up. It isn’t enough to go to the other side of the world to help other mothers and their babies. I am bound to share what I saw and what these mothers experience as they try to survive and care for their families in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
When I ﬁrst told the story of the mother and her triplets, it was mostly to other obstetricians who reveled in the details in a way that only fellow colleagues would. Later, I told that story to a few journalists and writers who were keen to know more about “life in the ﬁeld.”
But there is another side to that beautiful story. When I returned to Aweil a year later, I met that mother again in the hospital, this time in the pediatric unit. She was there with her older twin daughters and two of the three triplets. Of the two youngest girls, one had been admitted with acute malnutrition and the other was noticeably underweight. Their brother had died of malnutrition a few weeks before I arrived.
The surviving triplet girls did well, put on weight, and were discharged before I left to return home to the US. They were lucky to have access to care for malnutrition, and to get this care in the nick of time. In honor of baby Stewart, who did not survive, and in dedication to his four sisters, I have a duty to bear witness and tell the full story.
As we ﬁght to provide access to health care for the people who need it most, an essential part of our job is this kind of témoignage—the French word for witnessing. We need to remind people that every single human being deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and they deserve to be seen and heard.
As you read this special issue of Alert devoted to the importance of bearing witness, I hope you will take some time to look at the portraits of our patients and staff, learn about their stories, and consider the challenges people face as they are caught in crisis situations. We cover some big issues here—war, migration, natural disasters, and epidemics—but ultimately what matters is the individuals at the center of it all. The people I have met along the way during my time at MSF inspire me to keep going, to work harder, to speak out when they can’t.
On behalf of our patients and our teams around the world, thank you for supporting this extraordinary work. Thank you for caring about people whose lives might seem very different on the outside, but who are not so different on the inside.
Wishing you all a very happy and healthy new year.
Africa Stewart, MD
President, MSF-USA Board of Directors