Profile – Calgary Herald – April 24, 2009
The pain of Africa
Doctor hopes book inspires humanitarian work in troubled continent.
By Eric Volmers, Canwest News Service April 24, 2009
Dr. James Maskalyk is haunted by the memory of a pregnant Sudanese woman he couldn’t save.
During the solitary days and nights he spent tapping out his memories of Africa in front of his computer in Toronto, the images returned. He was back in the border town of Abyei in Sudan, where he lived in a dusty compound while working in an ill-equipped hospital for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in 2007. When revisiting his experiences for his debut book, Six Months in Sudan, the nameless woman became his most persistent ghost.
“When I went away for the first time to write about it and was alone, I had the equivalent of what flashbacks may be,” says Maskalyk, in an interview from his publisher’s office in Toronto. “When I had to recount that experience, I was thrown back there: the smells, the feeling, that helplessness. It was something that played over and over again. There are parts of my book that I can’t read without experiencing those emotions.”
The passage occupies only a few pages, but it’s a harrowing account.
Three doctors struggle to save the woman. They can’t. She dies as her newborn baby cries nearby. Maskalyk is forced to tell her penniless and heartbroken husband that they are not allowed to help him take the body to the graveyard. He would have to find his own way.
A University of Calgary medical school graduate who grew up near Edmonton, the 35-year-old author’s time in troubled Sudan clearly had a lasting impact. Maskalyk had decided before his arrival that he would chronicle his experiences, coaxing reluctant Frontieres officials to allow him to blog about his day-to- day life for the MSF website. He wrote about everything: the heat, the strange food, the dust, even the bad jazz band and howling dogs that kept him awake at night. He wrote about measles epidemics, dying babies, endearing orphans, ominous soldiers and the oppressive poverty and constant threat of war that hovered over Abyei. Before he knew it, his blogs were getting more hits than the MSF’s main page. Publishers were calling the aid organization, asking who his agent was.
“I found early on in the blog that there was an audience of people who were interested in hearing stories from even the hardest places, and maybe particularly from those places,” he says.
Still, Maskalyk’s book – which includes some of the blogs verbatim – is not an easy read. Six Months in Sudan places the reader in the middle of countless medical dramas, recording the desperation and constant loss of life with a grim immediacy. As readers, we can’t turn away; left to witness a suffering that would have otherwise been comfortably distant, undocumented or abstract.
“I didn’t sugar-coat anything, nor did I make it any harder than it was,” he says. “What I hope I do is demystify the sanctity that surrounds (humanitarian work), that idea that it’s only for the committed, it’s only for the certain, it’s only for people who have this incredible amount of resolve in the face of adversity and succeed despite all odds. It’s not like that. It’s just regular people from all over the world who gather around this idea. So I think, rather than scare people away, I hope it inspires people. As much as this is a world in need of repair, there are actually people doing it right now and there’s room for more.”
Graduating medical school in 1999, Maskalyk was already a veteran of some of the world’s hot spots when he went to Sudan. As a young doctor, he had been drawn to South America, southern Africa and Cambodia, where he worked alongside former members of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime. Sudan, he thought, would offer the next step in his journey. It was clearly a place that needed healing.
“I’m curious by nature and I like adventure in all of its forms,” says Maskalyk. “That’s just part of who I am. And then, as a doctor, I think when you have some recognition of the problem and how you can be part of the solution, so too goes some responsibility.”
Since he left, the compound where he worked was burned to the ground. But Maskalyk doesn’t dwell on the complex politics that have fed its civil war for decades. Six Months in Sudan is more about the inner conflicts of aid workers who struggle with the restrictions that are placed on them. Working on the blog, Maskalyk says, was cathartic.
“A lot of the work was very difficult, medically, for me as a physician,” he says. “I felt that I was unable to live up to my obligations sometimes for my patients. I have patients here in Toronto as I did in Calgary and I am able to say to them with the utmost sincerity that I can offer them the best health care in the world and really mean it. In the Sudan, all I could offer was the best I could do. And when that isn’t enough, I take that responsibility on myself.”
Growing up in Alberta, Maskalyk was fascinated both by writing and science. In school, he was placed in a “young authors” program that allowed him to delve into creative writing at an early age. In high school, his guidance counsellor advised him that studying science and going to medical school would provide a more lucrative career path than studying English literature.
Maskalyk now works as an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine and is founding editor of the medical journal Open Medicine. He hasn’t ruled out a return to Sudan. But eventually, he hopes to expand his literary scope into the less traumatic world of fiction.
“It’s definitely in my future,” he says. “I think it would be a great chance to tell an even more complex story. I spent six months in my own mind, going meticulously through all these experiences. It would be so nice to inhabit a new world that you make up in your mind and on paper.”
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