Student spends spare time fighting famine

by Hilary Thomson

Staff writer

Spending three months fending off starvation in a war-ravaged African country isn't anyone's idea of a summer holiday.

Yet second-year medical student Simon Pulfrey didn't hesitate to spend his summer organizing feeding centres in the former Zaire in central Africa.

From May to August he worked as a nutritional expert for Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, a private international humanitarian organization providing emergency medical aid.

MSF doesn't usually hire medical students. However, a master's degree in nutrition, the ability to speak French and previous experience with other aid agencies working in Nepal and Tibet made Pulfrey a good fit for the job.

"I like the challenge of raw situations where there's an elemental need," says Pulfrey. "It both intimidates and motivates me."

The day he arrived in Goma in the northeast part of Zaire, rebel forces overthrew the government. So after only six days in Africa, Pulfrey was evacuated back to Canada. He returned to Zaire 10 days later when the situation was less dangerous.

During a seven-month rebel campaign, thousands of villagers fled their homes for the jungle to escape the fighting. Farmers whose crops had been looted were afraid to return to their fields because of bombing and gunfire, Pulfrey says.

"It was chaotic," he says. "There were pockets of displaced ethnic groups living in dense jungle with no road connections. People were cut off from food and starving, especially the children."

Although rebel forces had seized the capital of Kinshasa, fighting continued as the army secured its hold on the country.

Pulfrey worked with an MSF doctor and about 100 local staff including nurses, nutritionists, radio operators and security guards to get food to villagers. Travelling in convoy through combat zones, the team covered an area about half the size of Vancouver Island. They set up tents, kitchens, beds, latrines and food security to create temporary feeding centres.

Pulfrey surveyed villagers, collecting data on the rates and causes of local malnutrition and death. He evaluated the information and reported it to UNICEF and the World Food Program, triggering shipments of food from Europe, which MSF workers trucked to the feeding stations.

Most of the recipients were children six months to five years old. They were prioritized according to a ratio of height to weight. Those who could be helped were given high energy meals eight times a day.

"In three days they'd be dead or getting better," Pulfrey says.

Besides malnutrition the children suffered from HIV, measles, malaria, tuberculosis and meningitis.

Pulfrey says he was shocked at how he learned to distance himself from the suffering.

"Nothing could have prepared me emotionally for the horrific things I saw. I had never witnessed that degree of conflict, that hatred before."

But being part of a group trying to make a difference helped him through the experience.

"When eyes that had been dull started to sparkle a bit -- that was wonderful."

Setting up the centres under hostile conditions gave him a sense of accomplishment, he says.

"I tapped into resources I don't normally use."

Pulfrey also feels privileged to have witnessed such an intense appreciation of life.

"I really gained respect for how people can suffer so much and still have a drive to continue living."

While he may work abroad again Pulfrey plans to go into family medicine after graduation.