Building trust with Rohingya refugees through medical volunteering in Bangladesh

By Desiree C. Spehn-Roland, MD

On my first day of volunteering, the second patient I saw in the Camp 4 Medical Clinic at the Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh, was a very ill six-week-old baby. He had a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and was brought to the clinic by his visibly concerned mother. I was equally worried about the boy, given the low resource medical environment.

Back home laboratory and radiologic investigation and hospital admission were readily available, so I had to adjust accordingly. The mother’s eyes were filled with fear and all I could think about was how to avoid another tragedy in this woman’s life after she had to flee her homeland under horrific conditions.

I decided to treat the patient with intravenous antibiotics, with return visits to our clinic for the next several days, hoping that the child would improve enough to be switched over to oral medication. With each visit, the mother and I bonded more and more as mothers and as women, with the common goal of keeping our children safe from harm. Our maternal instincts made us soulmates.

After three days, we were both smiling and relieved. I felt her thankfulness even though she could not speak my language and I did not speak hers. Our Rohingya translator had a very special skill and worked tirelessly to make sure that we understood each other completely.

Afterward, I saw the mother every day I worked in the camp since she lived in a hut right next to our clinic. She always greeted me with a facial expression of deepest gratitude, it is the greatest reward a physician can receive. Sometimes she would proudly present her thriving baby to me. On occasion, I would feel the touch of her hand for a brief moment on my arm.

I only knew the term “refugee” as an abstract concept until I met this mother and her baby. Refugees have a name, face, heart, and soul, and are full of emotions and desires, needs, fears, and joy.

I will be forever thankful for the opportunity to volunteer and help those who need us most.

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