Whistler doctor shares story of Bangladesh refugee camp

Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell returns home after providing medical care to those in need

Bits of plastic bags, scrap bamboo and pieces of string.

It might sound like the contents of a garbage bin, but when Dr. Ola Dunin-Bell was working in an overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, it served as a sign of hope.

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“One morning, we had walked in (to the camp) and it had been raining and raining the previous week and it was hard to walk,” she recalled, back home in Whistler, where she lives part-time. “I was happy the sun was out and it was starting to dry up. I looked up and there was this boy flying a kite. He took bits of broken bags and bamboo from the huts — I don’t know where he found the string they tied together — and they managed to construct kites. The smiles on the faces of these kids, you would never know that this world of hell was surrounding them. That’s probably the biggest thing I learned: I try to look for the kite in a bad day because I think, ‘if they can do it, I should try and do it too.’”

Dunin-Bell is a surgical aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU). As part of that team, she’s travelled to Nepal to help in the wake of the devastating 2015 earthquake and, later that year, travelled to Jordan where she helped with medical screening as Syrian refugees began to arrive. But most recently, the ERU mobile clinic team took her to Bangladesh, where Rakhine refugees from Myanmar have fled to escape unthinkable violence.

“One of the things we did when we were there was the health screening immediately after they crossed the border,” Dunin-Bell said. “These people had nothing. Often their homes had been burned down, they had lost family members — they literally escaped sometimes with a few possessions on their backs, but sometimes without shoes on their feet.”

The hundreds of thousands of people were then tasked with building makeshift shelters in very close proximity to the other refugees. The area had been game preserve, meaning it had no infrastructure — no roads (the team hiked in each day with medicine and equipment), running water or facilities. The result was a breeding ground for various illnesses, some of which Dunin-Bell and her team could help with.

“We could do very basic things,” she said. “We brought oral rehydration salts, initially we brought in treated water — which was quite heavy to bring in — then we brought in a filtering system.”

They were also able to treat certain types of diarrhea and pneumonia with antibiotics, as well as offer “Plumpy’nut,” a peanut-based paste the World Health Organization recommends for malnutrition, to those in need.

“I felt I was asked to empty an ocean with an eyedropper,” Dunin-Bell said. “And yet, knowing that to one family I had given antibiotics, that had made all the difference (to them), and I had the skill to listen to a child’s lungs and know what’s going on and how to treat them, that felt wonderful.”

Another surprise impact the team was able to make: simply listening to patients. Dunin-Bell recalled examining an elderly man whose hip had been dislocated and femur broken months earlier. The bone had healed over and “short of a very high-end, North American reset with multiple operations, there was nothing you could do,” she said. “I felt terrible saying to him there wasn’t really anything we could do. He took my hand and said, ‘thank you. Allah will provide. Thank you.’ For these people who were terrified and alone, just having someone treat them like a human being worth listening to, that was big.”

For more information on the Canadian Red Cross’ work in Bangladesh, visit icrc.org/en/where-we-work/asia-pacific/myanmar.

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