For three decades surgeon Ken Barrand has brought life-changing healthcare to some of the most dangerous places on earth. After returning from his final deployment, a year in North Korea, he lifted the lid on his Red Cross career.
Ken is retiring after working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, often performing surgery in war zones.
He said: “The hospital I worked at in Somalia in the late 80s was probably the worst in the world – really dreadful.”
Ken has mixed his deployments with periods of less stressful work, often back in the UK. He says this meant he could keep returning to challenging environments – unlike many people he worked with who would complete five intensive years but never return to the job.
He said: “You can’t keep someone doing busy war surgery for more than about three months, because they burn out.
“I don’t think it’s possible to do it continuously. It’s hard to balance (deployments) with the rest of your life – it’s a crazy thing to do.”
Grateful patients but few drugs
Not every trip abroad was to a conflict area. Ken’s year in North Korea involved three-month long stints at three different hospitals, where he taught other doctors and performed dozens of operations.
Ken’s patients ranged from miners hurt in industrial accidents to victims of domestic violence, and he knows his efforts were appreciated. He said: “When someone got better, you could see on their faces they were grateful. And their relatives even more so.”
It was a challenging place to work – hospitals were well staffed but had few drugs or medical textbooks by Western standards, and he also had to contend with working in freezing weather.
Ken first worked as a doctor in the UK, but took a job as head of surgery at the Fiji School of Medicine before beginning his involvement with the Red Cross.
He started with a posting in Thailand in 1982 – although at first he was getting more care than he was giving to others.
He said: “I was sick as a dog for the first few weeks. But I haven’t been sick since.”