Dr Vanessa Naidoo: On the frontlines with Médecins Sans Frontières

vanessa-naidoo-600Dr Vanessa Naidoo’s passion for people and medicine has led to her leaving the comforts of home to provide much-needed medical care for vulnerable people in some of the world’s most dangerous places

Galvanised by the images of the injured in the 2011 Libyan uprising, Dr Vanessa Naidoo decided to put her passion for people and medicine to good use; she volunteered with international medical and humanitarian aid organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Currently, she is in South Sudan, as the organisation responds to a cholera outbreak in the area.

“My passions are medicine and people – this makes MSF a natural choice for me. I have always wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world, but I didn’t always know that aid work would be a feature on that pathway, but I am very glad that it is.”

Naidoo says she heard about MSF while at university; “I had heard about MSF during my training at the University of Cape Town (UCT); they had helped to start the ARV roll-out in Khayelitsha while I was still a student. I filled out the online application shortly after I watched that news clip on Libya, and the rest, as they say, is history!”


Naidoo is an anaesthetist, but her first stint with MSF was as part of a team setting up a maternity hospital in Afghanistan and supervising the operating theatre. She helped to train midwives, some of whom had never seen an operation before, to work in the operating theatre and assist with Caesarean sections.

She has also worked as an emergency doctor in a refugee camp tent hospital in Sudan, treating cases of malnutrition, lower respiratory tract infections, and malaria, while struggling to contain a hepatitis e outbreak. In Syria, she worked as an anaesthetist and also handled most female consultations and delivered babies.

Naidoo faces ethical dilemmas daily, one of which is to determine how far to go to save the premature babies who arrive at camps in a serious condition; “It’s a difficult situation to be in, and we do what we can within our means, remembering ‘first, do no harm’.

“It’s very challenging working in an environment where patients arrive in poor physical condition, and you have minimal facilities to diagnose and treat them.  As doctors, we have to rely on our clinical skills to make diagnoses, and my South African training and community service experience has served me well in this regard.  As MSF, we are doing the best we can in these circumstances, but you always wish you could do more.”

But, Naidoo says, there are few things better than seeing a child who was too weak to eat begin to play and smile again; “It might sound corny, but I earn my rewards in smiles.”

While travelling the globe saving lives may sound romantic, Naidoo’s work has taken her to war zones in Afghanistan, Southern Sudan and Syria, and she has had to contend with exploding bombs and mines, and gunfire, while trying to care for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Along with this, she has shared their daily hardships; extreme temperatures; deadly creatures; and substandard accommodation, but, she says, it is all worth it to see the faces of the people she works with; “It’s not easy, but it’s a privilege to be able to do a job you love, for people who need it most.

“The harsh realities of ongoing war are plain to see in a trauma centre. Although we provide a high standard of healthcare, many injuries are so severe that there is little we can do to save patients, but knowing that we are making a difference and drawing attention to the plight of these refugees make the difficulties we experience worthwhile.”

Having always wanted to study medicine, Naidoo says she didn’t consider too many other options.

“I have always had a natural interest in biology and a curious mind; I was one of those kids who dissected insects in the garden, and didn’t find it disgusting. As a child I spent a lot of time in the doctors’ rooms, and I always thought that it would feel good to know how to fix people and make them feel better, but I don’t think I really knew what the medical profession really involved until I was well on my way to becoming a doctor.

“I began to have doubts about my choice in the first few years of medical school at UCT, but I had an experience in my first year that settled things in my mind. I was one of the first people to arrive at an accident scene with my uncle one night; the driver of the car was thrown from the vehicle and lying in a ditch on the side of the road – he was awake but injured and in pain, and I had no idea what to do. I hated that feeling of helplessness in the face of suffering, and that’s what drove me to complete my medical studies.”


While at medical school Naidoo worked with the UCT-based Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation, a student-run non-profit that provides healthcare and education services to poorer communities in the Cape Metropolitan area.

Now, juggling aid work, and private and public healthcare, Naidoo says she loves being a doctor;
“I love my job, because it never feels like a job. I enjoy working as part of a team with a systematic approach to solving problems and seeing results … even when you can’t help them, most people are just grateful that someone has tried.”

However, as rewarding as her work is, Naidoo says it’s also emotionally demanding; “There are times when I feel my life is very ‘abnormal’. The more time I spend in the field, the less I can relate to the world I used to live in, and that’s hard sometimes. I have come to realise that in order to be effective in aid work, I need to have balance in my life. I need to take care of the relationships I have with friends and family back home, look after my health and take time to rest. I would like to get married and have a family someday, but I’m pretty sure I will always do work for MSF or some other humanitarian organisation – preferably in the field, but perhaps even in the office, developing policies and protocols if needed.

“I have to remain strong and believe that we are making a difference.”

Naidoo is currently completing a masters in philosophy in emergency medicine with UCT. The programme emphasises evidence-based medicine, which she believes is vital in aid work.

“I know that to stay on the top of my game, I need to expose myself to medicine in all contexts. For example, on mission I lose some of the skills I have for interpreting sophisticated tests and investigations, so it’s good to get that practice when I come back home. I probably see myself working and teaching in the public health sector in South Africa in the long term, but I know I will always do missions as often as I can.”