Ben King is an engineer working with MSF who is extremely passionate about global health. He talks to GHG about how he found himself working with MSF and his experience in Afghanistan.
GHG: Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in the South Island of New Zealand in the country with two brothers, my parents and a range of animals. I studied mechanical engineering and went on to develop biomedical equipment after doing a student project at a medical company in Sweden while on exchange there. My Dad was an engineer and worked from home a lot so I started at a very young age to work on technical things. The project that I did while on exchange in Sweden was hugely influential on my career to this point. I had no previous medical experience, but always had an interest since my brother has a disability and I always wanted to help him somehow. Once I started working in that field, I realised how much there was to learn and how much I could contribute.
GHG: Tell us about your work as an engineer with MSF?
I had a long standing desire to do some kind of volunteer work or humanitarian work but had never quite found the right organisation where I could use my technical skills in a meaningful way. At the time, I was working in Canada and feeling quite unmotivated by my work there so I decided to apply for MSF after finding out that it was possible for me to go to the field as a logistician.
GHG: What where your daily activities and responsibilities?
In Afghanistan, I was the “Flying Biomedical Technician”, I was responsible for ensuring that all 434 medical devices in 4 hospital across the country were in good working order, properly maintained and being used correctly. I planned for routine maintenance and procured spare parts as well as training a number of local technicians on proper maintenance procedures.
GHG: What were your main achievements – professional and personal?
Working with the local people was a huge highlight, it was very rewarding to interact with them as colleagues and peers. Watching my assistant train my other assistant after attending a training session in Europe and seeing how much confidence he had gained was incredible.
GHG: What inspired you whilst you were working?
The ability of the local people to cope with incredible hardship with a smile and a positive attitude.
GHG: What did you find most challenging?
While the international staff were incredible on the whole, a very small number of them made my work very challenging.
GHG: Where was the most interesting place you’ve travelled to?
So far, I only worked in Afghanistan for MSF but during the 6 months I was there, I travelled every few days between the hospitals spread all over the country.
GHG: What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
Hmmm… My memory isn’t so good for such things, but on the topic of Afghanistan I loved the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
GHG: How do you keep motivated to work in the field of global health?
Just knowing how much need that there is and seeing it on a daily basis in the media.
GHG: What has been the most challenging cross cultural experience you’ve had? Why?Travelling in Iran is extremely interesting and rewarding but also challenging because their culture of hospitality is very deeply ingrained. Sometimes it can be challenging to understand why someone is doing something for you that they don’t necessarily want to, just because it is their cultural duty. It’s hard to explain in one sentence but I highly recommend going there to experience it for yourself.
GHG: What is the most essential piece of equipment for working abroad?
My Leatherman pocket knife. Without it, I would not have been able to do my job.
GHG: What is the most frustrating thing about working abroad in this setting? Any ways you have found to avoid or cope with this frustration?
It’s a tough job and it won’t always be perfect, you need to be creative, quick thinking and adaptable to work in such a tough environment with limited resources. Getting frustrated doesn’t help. Looking at the outcomes for the patients coming through the gate here and now and reflecting on where they’d be without the work that is being done is enough to just keep on going.
GHG: From a work perspective, how is the reality different from the dream you had of working in global health?
I don’t think it is too different, perhaps the range of cultures and expertise within MSF was different to what I expected in some cases.
GHG: If you could start your career in global health again would you change anything?
GHG: Give us a moment you’ve had working in global health that will make those of us still stuck at home envious of your lifestyle during this job
An early morning flight over the beautiful, snow capped mountains of the Hindu Kush range as you soar northwards towards Kunduz, dropping into the deep and rugged valleys on your way to pick up and drop off passengers. Magic!
GHG: What are your tips for people interested in working in global health?
Don’t wait, get on with it! The hardest part of the entire thing is putting pen to paper in the first place.
GHG: Recommend any interesting global health related websites that you would like to share with our readers
Here are the blog posts I wrote while in Afghanistan: http://blogs.msf.org/en/staff/authors/ben-king-0