Powerful lessons from abroad

In a Filipino field hospital only a month after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, Dr. Gavin Greenfield, MD'98, discovered the power of the human spirit.

Landing in the Philippines in early December of last year as part of the Health Emergency Response Unit (ERU) for the Canadian Red Cross, the Calgary-based emergency physician witnessed strength and survival from Filipinos. “They are strong people that had gone through a significant trauma, but were getting back on their feet,” he said. “The country was in repair mode.”

The typhoon left much of the country devastated with high death tolls and widespread damage when it hit the islands in early November. Dr. Greenfield and the Canadian Health ERU team were deployed to the city of Ormoc as part of the second wave of relief efforts.

The conditions were rough, but manageable. “The hospital suffered pretty significant damage to the point that many parts of the building were unusable,” Dr. Greenfield explained. “But we still had the local physicians and nurses reporting for work.”

Working as the inpatient pediatrician alongside the local staff and volunteers, he developed strong personal connections with his colleagues. “It ended up being quite a privilege for me,” said Dr. Greenfield. “We learned a lot from each other.”

He was particularly humbled by five male nurses from an unaffected area of the country who had given up their salaries and the comforts of home to volunteer at the Ormoc Hospital indefinitely.

During his four-week deployment, Dr. Greenfield kept a blog to document these stories of selflessness and hardship. The blog’s tone ranges from lighthearted – one post recounts his introduction to karaoke culture – to tragic, with losses of young patients and personal grief.

“I’m terrible with computers and I’ve never seen Facebook,” he said. “But I really enjoyed writing the blog. It made me sit down and reflect about what was going on.”

The blog was also a way of connecting with his friends and family back home in Canada. Dr. Greenfield works in emergency medicine at the Foothills Medical Centre and the Peter Lougheed Centre. He is also an assistant clinical professor with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Calgary and a Transport Physician for the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS).

The medical profession was always in his sights. “As a kid, you think about what you want to be when you grow up and for me it was always a doctor,” he explained. “I thought a medical career would provide me with the opportunity to do a lot of good.”

Dr. Greenfield's education at Schulich Medicine instilled a sense of social responsibility he has carried throughout his career. "Physicians are in a position to truly make a difference in someone's life," he said. "We need to take that responsibility seriously."

As for his work with the Red Cross, Dr. Greenfield was motivated by curiosity and a sense of duty. “I thought I could share some of what I’ve learned with other areas in the world that are in need of assistance,” he said.

He applied and was accepted by the organization, beginning his training in 2012. He remains on the service roster for the Health ERU and could be deployed at any moment should disaster strike, although the rotation likely won’t land on him again for some time.

The experience in the Philippines was his first deployment and made a big difference in Dr. Greenfield’s life. He hopes to continue his international medical education. “Working abroad in different conditions with different people makes me a better doctor and hopefully a better person.”