Health care in austere conditions: CAF medical technicians explain their role during Operation PRESENCE – Mali

Two medics carry a cardboard box full of supplies
Gao, Mali. July 13, 2018 – Cpl Marjorie Matte (left) and Cpl Alexandre Gagne (right), medics from 25 Health Services currently supporting Operation PRESENCE - Mali, double check their medical supplies at Camp Castor. (Photo: MCpl Jennifer Kusche)

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By Cpl Alexandre Gagné and Cpl Marjorie Matte, medical technicians, 25 Canadian Forces Health Services Centre

Being the first Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) medics deployed in Gao, Mali involves a number of difficulties. The heat, dust, lack of resources, danger level, delays and lacking communications make our work more complex and force us to become resourceful.

Helping each other is definitely our strength, enabling us to adapt more easily to the new conditions of this environment. All the trades have to work together on a common goal, which is opening the camp for Canadians.

We received a lot of help from the Germans, who have been at the camp for several years. Even with limited resources, teamwork increases our effectiveness. Our supervisors are understanding and have confidence in us. Being valued in our work, we can give our best. In addition, camaraderie comes more easily in a situation like this. Friendships are forged more quickly, without necessarily taking rank into account. Here, all soldiers must give it their all, regardless of the task at hand, as we’re all in this together in the same desert.

Communication in the camp is difficult. We don’t have access to a cellular network or social networks. A few minutes per day with a satellite phone enables us to give our families some news. We can also use the camp cafeteria, where we eat well. The temperature sometimes reaches as high as 50 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, we have air conditioning in the role 1 hospital we came to set up and in the tents where we sleep. Sometimes, sleep is more difficult during “haboobs”, sand storms, with winds reaching over 100 km/h. Shower time is limited to two minutes a day, but at least we have hot water (haha!).

At the medical level, the environment doesn’t always allow for clean or sterile techniques, so more precautions are needed. Setting up the role 1 hospital was also challenging because of the conditions, available space and equipment that trickled in bit by bit each day. Experience acquired over the years enabled us to overcome the difficulties we encountered. Since we have no external distractions, we are more focused on the mission tasks, including contact with patients, who are highly respectful of the work we do. Given the threat level, we need to be prepared for every eventuality.

As a result of these conditions, medics mature as soldiers and hone their medical skills. We will never forget the opportunity we had with this experience, and we will be proud to leave here with one more tool in our toolbox.

Image gallery

  • A female military member smiles and stands beside a barbed wire fence in the desert
  • A military member looks out at the desert beside a barbed wire fence
  • Two medics look through supplies in a bag
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