Trail surgeon volunteers at hospital, teaches doctors in Afghanistan

Steve McVicar, a Trail orthopedic surgeon, is just finishing up the last leg of volunteer medical work in northern Afghanistan.

Though troops capped off a 12-year mission in Afghanistan last week, there remains another kind of Canadian presence.

Steve McVicar, a Trail orthopedic surgeon, is just finishing up the last leg of volunteer medical work in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, about 70 kilometres from the Tajikistan border.

He’s volunteering on a six-week stint with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), working as an orthopedic surgeon and teaching Afghan doctors.

“The country here is becoming increasingly dangerous with a general election only weeks away; Luckily, I will be coming home just before the election in two weeks,” he told the Times via email. “Amongst the political rhetoric and propaganda, there is still a population here trying to survive this country and they do need basic health care.

“The trauma and violence is staggering.”

After stabilizing and operating on 10 gunshot patients with more on the way, McVicar is called to the emergency room to see a patient whose X-ray shows a bullet lodged right beside the brain stem.

Amazingly, the patient is neurologically intact. The volunteer is then informed the hospital is full — one dose of antibiotics and a Band-Aid and the patient is discharged home.

This is McVicar’s reality as he clocks 12-16 hour days in a generally full 90-bed hospital. He’s got his hands full as the facility’s orthopedic surgeon, working alongside a Danish general surgeon and an American anesthetist.

This is not the first time the Rossland resident has left his peaceful life behind. Last year he signed up for the same experience with Doctors Without Borders and prior to that he was with the Canadian Army in Kandahar in 2007 and with the U.S. Army, also in Kandahar, in 2010 — both times as a civilian surgeon under contract.

McVicar has learned a lot since his first experience as a doctor overseas, where he performed trauma surgery on Canadian soldiers, Afghan police, Afghan civilians, the Afghan Army and even some Taliban members.

The surgical experience and satisfaction he gets from saving lives keeps him dedicated to the job, which is a natural choice for the former marine engineer with the military. But this doesn’t mean his work isn’t difficult.

He’s forced to amputate a baby’s right foot when a mother brings in her child whose legs were badly burned about a month ago. The electricity suddenly goes out and the backup generators don’t kick in. He’s in total blackness in the operating room until nurses use three iPhones to light the room so he can finish the procedure.

It’s late and he needs to get back to the compound to sleep because tomorrow is another day.

Doctors Without Borders is an organization dedicated to helping people worldwide where the need is greatest, delivering emergency medical aid to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters or exclusion from health care.