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Doctor on a mission to Afghanistan and Haiti

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I first met Tomáš Šebek, a surgeon and traumatologist, at TEDxPrague conference in May 2013, where he talked about how he went to Haiti with Doctors without Borders. I enjoyed his speech so much I asked him for a contact. A few months later, Tomáš went on a mission to Afghanistan for six weeks and every day, he sent me an authentic story from the other side of a battlefield.

You go on missions to areas affected by war or a natural disaster again and again. What was your first time like – to leave that perfectly equipped hospital, family, friends… Were you afraid you might not come back?

I had only realized it all on my arrival. What seemed as an adventurous pioneer camp at the beginning, turned out to be something entirely different, but as working with Doctors without Borders is so intense, there was no time for complaints or thinking, we had a job to do. I simply did not think about the danger.

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Receiving your emails with stories and pictures was like watching some private medical reality show from an exotic island. Or a detective story. Why did you start to write a diary-blog?

Precisely because of those reality show elements. The first simple “I arrived alright” e-mails, turned, at the request of my friends, into stories about the environment, girls, traditions, patients… people asked for what they wanted to read. I was merely a “recorder”.

You often worked late at night, but still we had your story waiting for us in the mailbox next morning…

I really enjoyed the fact the people on the other side liked my stories and I felt committed to finish them. Also, I sometimes realized I had made a medical mistake as I was writing my story down and hurried to fix it first thing in the morning. I received some expert feedback by mail from my colleagues too, which helped me immensely.

Why did we get your stories via email? Don’t you use social networks?

The country’s security situation did not even allow any other way of sharing. And I could not afford to endanger any of my colleagues or the whole project. It might have been a slightly “outdated” method of sharing, but surprisingly viable. It turned into a sort of private social network.

Do you plan on going on another mission?

I always aim to return to the same place again, to see how the project evolved and whether the work we began as a team continues with success. I went back to Haiti and I want to go back to Afghanistan too. I got next spring booked for a mission.

Your stories from Haiti came out in a book called “Mise Haiti”, which is very successful. Do you plan to do the same with your Afghanistan stories?

My whole life consists entirely of coincidences – I don’t plan anything, just let things happen. And I guess I have really lucky, too. Our local Doctors without Borders branch enjoyed my blog from Afghanistan and invested into an English translation and in Britain they liked it so much they themselves altered it to the best British English with all those slang expressions and they put it on the blog of Doctors without Borders – I think it is available in Ireland and Britain. And one of the Afghanistan stories is currently on tour through Germany, along with the Doctors without Borders exhibition, which illustrates how doctors work and live on their missions in refugee camps. Actually, the translation is so good, you could make it a book right away, but I guess I am waiting for a chance to steer me towards that.

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