For six weeks in August and September of 2015, Dr. Pontinen traveled to South Sudan with Doctors Without Borders to help perform trauma surgeries on war victims in their ongoing civil war. He both provided anesthesia for surgeries and performed operations himself. He also covered medical call in their ICU, which consisted primarily of patients suffering from severe malaria, tuberculosis, a tropical disease called kala-azar, and HIV. In addition he rounded on general medical patients with the medical team and also helped with various non-medical tasks like training local staff and pharmaceutical management.
It was physically difficult due to the heat, bugs, lack of clean food, and long work hours. He got sick for almost two weeks, losing 20 lbs in the process. Every night, while lying in his grass roof/mud wall hut, he would hear automatic gunfire from local skirmishes and see tracer bullets fly overhead. Rebel soldiers passed through on their way to the front lines, often returning as patients with either gunshot or mortar shell wounds. Having never been in a war zone before, he’d never before appreciated the basic luxury of safety we enjoy at home every day.
The lack of medical resources often left the team unable to help patients, knowing what needed to be done, but unable to do it. This was the hardest aspect of the entire mission. These difficulties, however, posed an element of authenticity in his mind and allowed him to gain better insight into how the South Sudanese lived and what they were forced to deal with on a daily basis. He’d never before met a tougher, better hearted, or more resilient group of individuals and hopes to return in the near future.