He’s wit­nessed first-hand plenty of mis­ery, brushed with death from lethal ill­nesses, in­clud­ing: Ebola, malaria, and AIDS, and had to make on the hoof de­ci­sions whether to let the mis­sion­ary work take him fur­ther- to more un­pre­dictable and un­fath­omable si

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Li­nas Jegele­vi­cius

He’s wit­nessed first-hand plenty of mis­ery, brushed with death from lethal ill­nesses, in­clud­ing: Ebola, malaria, and AIDS, and had to make on the hoof de­ci­sions whether to let the mis­sion­ary work take him fur­ther- to more un­pre­dictable and un­fath­omable sit­u­a­tions in even more health aid-de­prived world spots than Haiti or Rwanda and a dozen oth­ers, where An­drius Slavuckis, a lo­gis­tics co­or­di­na­tor at MSF, Doc­tors With­out Borders, has toiled. “It’s not only mis­ery and hope­less­ness. Some­times, I see more of that in our west­ern so­ci­ety, on a psy­cho­log­i­cal level, I mean, than in those im­pov­er­ished places. Peo­ple are peo­ple ev­ery­where and adapt to dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. They laugh, joke, play, and chat. They have a good time too,” Slavuckis said in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view for The Baltic Times.

An­drius, how did you get af­fil­i­ated with the hu­man­i­tar­ian aid NGO, Doc­tors With­out Borders (Medecins Sans Fron­tieres)?

I knew them since I was about 8 years old when my father joined the or­gan­i­sa­tion. When I was 13, my dad was posted to Azer­bai­jan and he brought all of the fam­ily with him. My sis­ter and I went to a Rus­sian school and we were very much ex­posed to the type of work that my father was do­ing (work­ing with Az­eri in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple from the con­flict with Ar­me­nia in the Karabakh moun­tains) and the spe­cial way of life that hu­man­i­tar­ian aid work­ers are lead­ing. Though I had a lot of fun there, and the ex­pe­ri­ence had opened the world up for me, I still didn’t see it as my way of life. Af­ter fin­ish­ing school, I en­tered Vil­nius Uni­ver­sity, and 4 years later, re­ceived my di­ploma in ar­chae­ol­ogy. By that time, I was re­ally hun­gry for trav­el­ling and see­ing more of the world, and was com­mit­ted to pur­su­ing my mas­ter’s some­where else. So, I went to stay with my father in Geneva, Switzer­land, where he worked as a pro­gram man­ager at the MSF of­fice. I was hop­ing to learn some French and en­ter uni­ver­sity in France. Mean­while, I started vol­un­teer­ing at the MSF of­fice, help­ing out in the doc­u­men­ta­tion de­part­ment, but I was not sure where to go from there. So, I de­cided to still pur­sue my ar­chae­ol­ogy ca­reer. I en­tered a uni­ver­sity in the north of Fin­land to do a mas­ter’s de­gree. Soon there­after, I re­al­ized that even though I loved ar­chae­ol­ogy, I missed a sense of re­al­ity in it, so I found a school in France, Bio­force, that pre­pares lo­gis­ti­cians, ad­min­is­tra­tors and project man­agers for hu­man­i­tar­ian aid or­ga­ni­za­tions. Af­ter 9 months of very in­tense stud­ies mix­ing the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal work in the French moun­tains, I was a bit more ready to mean­ing­fully con­trib­ute to the work of a hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion…

From the me­dia re­ports, I see your father had been in­volved with the or­ga­ni­za­tion for 22 years of his life. What are the most vivid mem­o­ries of his ex­pe­ri­ences that he’s shared with you?

My par­ents al­ways tried to pro­tect us from un­nec­es­sary evil and cru­el­ties of this world. So, I did not hear lots of neg­a­tive or scary ac­counts when I was young. Both of my par­ents went to work in An­gola as soviet doc­tors in 1989. I was six years old at that time. I re­mem­ber re­ceiv­ing Po­laroid pic­tures of them stand­ing with hun­dreds of African kids. It didn’t seem real to me. While in An­gola, my dad was ap­proached by MSF and joined the or­ga­ni­za­tion. My mother re­turned home to con­tinue rais­ing us and worked as a sports doc­tor. From then on, my dad would spend 6 to 9 months on mis­sions, work­ing in all kinds of hot spots like: Bos­nia, Chech­nya, Rwanda, and so on. Years later, I found out about some of the horrors he had gone through. Get­ting evac­u­ated with a small air­plane min­utes be­fore the airstrip was com­pletely bombed in An­gola, work­ing in en­claves un­der con­stant Ser­bian sniper fire in Bos­nia, get­ting poi­soned and al­most killed by in­sur­gent Shamil Basaev’s peo­ple in Chech­nya, af­ter be­ing sus­pected of be­ing a Rus­sian spy, and so on. I re­ally hope he will take some time and write a book wor­thy of his life be­fore all the mem­o­ries fade away.

How dif­fer­ent, I mean from your father’s sto­ries, did your first mis­sion­ary en­counter go? Where did the first trip take you?

My first mis­sion was in post-earth­quake Haiti and lasted for two months. It was at the time of a ter­ri­ble cholera out­break around the coun­try in 2011. I was as­signed to work as a lo­gis­ti­cian with our emer­gency team in one of the cholera treat­ment cen­ters in a di­lap­i­dated neigh­bor­hood of the cap­i­tal Port-au-prince. Be­fore leav­ing, I called my father for ad­vice. He had seen many cholera camps dur­ing his pro­fes­sional ca­reer, and ex­plained to me that there was noth­ing to worry about. What I saw and ex­pe­ri­enced in re­al­ity was ev­ery­thing that my father told me it would be, and so much more….

Whereas my father had to work in places with­out de­cent com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices or in­for­ma­tion, I have the lux­ury of be­ing con­stantly con­nected to the In­ter­net wher­ever I go. He was per­form­ing surg­eries in all kinds of crazy cir­cum­stances, and now we have de­ployed in­flat­able surg­eries that can be set up in 24 hours. Th­ese are just a few ex­am­ples to il­lus­trate the fact that com­par­isons be­tween those days and my mis­sions are quite dif­fer­ent. Nev­er­the­less, I still call him for ad­vice ev­ery time.

Does be­ing a Chris­tian aid worker cre­ate some­times awk­ward sit­u­a­tions in pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries? Cor­rect if I am mis­taken, some of them be­ing helped might think the Chris­tian aid work­ers want to pros­e­ly­tize them?

MSF is so di­verse, that some­times Chris­tian work­ers are a mi­nor­ity in the project. In many pro­jects, I was work­ing hand in hand with Mus­lims, Or­tho­dox Chris­tians, Bap­tists, Hin­dus, Bud­dhists, athe­ists, and ag­nos­tics. We are all work­ing to­wards the same goal and some­times risk our health or lives for the sake of oth­ers

Most of the time, I don’t even know what faith my col­league is fol­low­ing. In some pro­jects, I have to re­mem­ber to al­lo­cate my staff some time for prayers. In case a par­tic­u­lar faith is pros­e­cuted in a coun­try where MSF has a mis­sion, we send only ex­pa­tri­ates that do not be­long to that par­tic­u­lar faith to avoid any pos­si­ble prob­lems. But th­ese are ex­cep­tions rather than the rule. I was work­ing in Libya and Ye­men, and I had a very good re­la­tion­ship with my Mus­lim broth­ers and sis­ters there.

Too many trou­bles in the world arose be­cause of peo­ple blindly fol­low­ing in­struc­tions of mis­guided re­li­gious teach­ers. As a med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, we con­stantly face is­sues try­ing to con­tain the spread of HIV in coun­tries where Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies have for­bid­den peo­ple to use pro­tec­tion dur­ing in­ter­course and preach ab­sti­nence un­til mar­riage, which, let’s be hon­est, is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to achieve, es­pe­cially in ar­eas where polygamy is en­trenched in the way of life. Abor­tions are not al­lowed and thou­sands of women die ev­ery year be­cause they were de­prived of ac­cess to qual­ity ser­vices, and rather chose ter­mi­nat­ing un­wanted preg­nan­cies with the help of a pill or un­qual­i­fied peo­ple. In pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries, th­ese is­sues are es­pe­cially hard to bring up. In most cases, we don’t even know the real fig­ures of HIV in­fec­tions or abor­tions be­cause it is such a taboo.

Where have the MSF mis­sions taken you so far?

I started in Haiti. My job was to or­gan­ise the clo­sure of a cholera treat­ment cen­ter since the epi­demic seemed to go down at that point. But just as I ar­rived there, we ex­pe­ri­enced an­other hike in cases and the cen­ter re­mained opened for a few more years. Then, I was of­fered a po­si­tion of lo­gis­ti­cian to open a new project in South Africa deal­ing with HIV and TB. It is a very am­bi­tious and big project in a ru­ral area of the coun­try, and it is still run­ning to this day. Af­ter one year of my ini­tial con­tract, I ex­tended for an­other six months, and then moved on to work in Khayelit­sha (Cape Town) in a very well-known re­search project in the slums of this beau­ti­ful city with one of the high­est rates of in­equal­ity in the world. Then, to­gether with my then girl­friend and now my wife, who is a doc­tor and was work­ing with MSF at the time, we went on to an­other HIV/TB project in Le­sotho for a few months.

There­after, I was of­fered a po­si­tion of sup­port lo­gis­ti­cian in Tripoli, Libya, where I spent four months try­ing to open a mi­grant ori­ented project in the desert area in the south of the coun­try and sup­port­ing a project in Tripoli deal­ing with psy­choso­cial prob­lems of mi­grants in de­ten­tion or peo­ple who have been tor­tured or ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lence dur­ing the Gad­hafi and post-rev­o­lu­tion eras. Af­ter that, to­gether with my

wife, we were sent to South Su­dan to work in the in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple’s camps in the cap­i­tal Juba. Then there was Sierra Leone, Cen­tral African Repub­lic, where I was in charge of all lo­gis­tics ac­tiv­i­ties of Msf-bel­gium sec­tion in the coun­try.

Af­ter MSF opened pro­jects in Italy, Turkey, Greece, Ser­bia and other af­fected Euro­pean coun­tries, I was sent to Bel­grade, where I was in charge of MSF lo­gis­tics.

My last mis­sion, which I re­turned from only a bit more than a month ago, was in Ye­men.

You’re deal­ing with an in­creased pre­dis­po­si­tion to a va­ri­ety of po­ten­tially lethal ill­nesses - cholera, malaria, HIV, Ebola virus, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and oth­ers. Are you al­ways 100% sure you’ve not con­tracted any of them?

Well, to be hon­est, I am never sure. I can only tell if I feel that I was ex­posed to cer­tain dis­eases or not. For ex­am­ple, I can def­i­nitely say that I don’t have HIV just be­cause I have not en­gaged in ac­tiv­i­ties that could po­ten­tially in­fect me with the virus. I can make sure I don’t get in­fected with cholera, just by fol­low­ing ba­sic hy­giene prac­tices and drink­ing clean wa­ter. As for tb, MSF asks me to have a reg­u­lar ap­point­ment with a doc­tor, and to have a ch­est xray done to make sure that I am not in­fected with tb. Even though I took anti-malar­ial med­i­ca­tion in South Su­dan, I was still in­fected. It hap­pened just af­ter the day that I for­got to take my pill. I have had all kinds of vac­cines in­jected in my body, and it keeps me pro­tected to a cer­tain ex­tent. As a side ef­fect of tast­ing var­i­ous ex­otic meals all over the world, I get food poi­son­ing on ev­ery mis­sion I go on. Ebola was a bit trick­ier. At the time of my mis­sion, there was still a lot un­known about the virus, and a lot of lo­cal health care work­ers were get­ting sick and dy­ing. Even some in­ter­na­tional staff were in­fected. We were all para­noid to a cer­tain ex­tent. No touch pol­icy, no shar­ing of food or things, keep­ing safe dis­tances be­tween in­fected and healthy peo­ple, overly pro­tect­ing our­selves – all to make sure we stayed safe. In its ini­tial stages of in­fec­tion, Ebola dis­plays symp­toms sim­i­lar to those of com­mon flu or malaria. Just be­fore leav­ing on the mis­sion, I caught flu while on train­ing in Brus­sels. As a con­se­quence, my de­par­ture was de­layed to make sure I would not in­fect my co-work­ers on the project and would not freak out any­one con­tract­ing the com­mon flu. My col­league on the project, an­other lo­gis­ti­cian from Malawi, woke up one day be­fore his de­par­ture from the project show­ing all kinds of symp­toms point­ing to Ebola. He was im­me­di­ately iso­lated in his room, and all vis­its were done wear­ing com­plete per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment. Blood re­sults were taken and quickly checked in the lab. You can imag­ine thoughts run­ning through our heads that day, re­mem­ber­ing how we had din­ner and a farewell party to­gether, guess­ing how he might have caught the virus while work­ing in the of­fice most of the time. Once blood re­sults came back, ev­ery­one was so re­lieved to find out that he only had malaria! So there is al­ways a risk to get in­fected, but we do ev­ery­thing that’s pos­si­ble to min­i­mize those risks and pro­tect our­selves and our col­leagues.

Do you take any ex­tra pre­cau­tions when han­dling a lethally ill pa­tient?

I don’t usu­ally han­dle lethally ill pa­tients my­self, since I am not a medic. Dur­ing cholera and Ebola mis­sions, I was in­volved in han­dling dead bod­ies that are ba­si­cally pools of in­fec­tion at the time of death. All kinds of pre­cau­tions were be­ing fol­lowed while do­ing that, es­pe­cially in the case of a pa­tient who died of Ebola. Even though the clothes we wore were not any dif­fer­ent from those that medics wore when they saw pa­tients, the pro­ce­dure of han­dling a dead body re­quired a whole lot of steps to make sure that the virus did not es­cape-- nei­ther from the wa­ter­proof body bags where the body was placed and sprayed with very po­tent chlo­rine so­lu­tion, nor from the mor­tu­ary where the de­con­tam­i­na­tion process was per­formed. It was quite a del­i­cate pro­ce­dure, with lots of peo­ple in­volved and very strict suc­ces­sion of steps taken.

Has your fam­ily and wife ap­proved of your pre­car­i­ous deal­ings on the mis­sions?

My fam­ily is very sup­port­ive of my choices. Es­pe­cially, be­cause we have been con­nected to MSF for so many years. My wife knows very well, that I do not take un­nec­es­sary risks and trusts my judg­ment. There are how­ever mis­sions that I re­fused, be­cause my fam­ily was not feel­ing good about me go­ing to cer­tain lo­ca­tions.

My wife is a South African doc­tor and cur­rently works for the de­part­ment of health in a pub­lic hos­pi­tal in ru­ral South Africa. We met in 2011, when I was work­ing on a project in her coun­try. She was work­ing for the same or­ga­ni­za­tion and was based in the main of­fice in Cape Town. We met dur­ing her vis­its to the project. A few years later, we went to­gether to South Su­dan and Sierra Leone.

Do you get emo­tional see­ing mis­ery and hope­less­ness? How do you cope with emo­tions? Did you ever cry on a mis­sion?

It’s not only mis­ery and hope­less­ness. Some­times I see more of that in our west­ern so­ci­ety (on a psy­cho­log­i­cal level) than in the places where I usu­ally work. Peo­ple are peo­ple ev­ery­where and adapt to dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. They laugh, joke, play, chat, and they have a good time too. There is noth­ing bet­ter than a dance party in one of the Cen­tral African bars. Peo­ple want to feel hu­man and to be treated de­cently. Un­for­tu­nately, it is dif­fi­cult to achieve in de­grad­ing cir­cum­stances that so many peo­ple find them­selves in to­day.

There are cer­tainly days when ev­ery­thing boils up and emo­tions take hold of me. But, usu­ally I am able to fo­cus on what I have to do and keep work­ing. The best in­spi­ra­tion and source of en­ergy is see­ing how lo­cal staff are so de­ter­mined to keep go­ing. This was very clear in Sierra Leone, where our lo­cal med­i­cal staff and hy­gien­ists saw them­selves as Ebola war­riors in the fight for their coun­try and their peo­ple. It makes you want to move for­ward and to con­trib­ute as much as pos­si­ble to that strug­gle.

I think I cried only once, when a mem­ber of our staff drowned in a swimming pool in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. It was an un­timely and com­pletely un­nec­es­sary death, which re­ally af­fected me on a per­sonal ba­sis.

There are so many eth­i­cal dilem­mas that we have to deal with on a daily ba­sis. Some­times it is re­ally hard to ac­cept that noth­ing can be done or that we haven’t done enough. Frus­tra­tions of­ten resur­face. At times, I just feel lonely. Then I call my wife or a friend, and it helps. We also try to talk as much as pos­si­ble be­tween col­leagues and vent our frus­tra­tions. There are also psy­chol­o­gists avail­able at head­quar­ters. We can al­ways call them and dis­cuss any­thing that both­ers us.

By pro­fes­sion, you’re an ar­chae­ol­o­gist. Don’t you miss the ex­ca­vat­ing? How of­ten do you feel the urge to un­earth the lay­ers of the his­toric sites in, say, Ye­men, Syria or else­where?

I miss ex­ca­va­tions a lot, but I don’t miss all those days I spent in the li­brary work­ing on my the­sis. I have par­tic­i­pated in quite a few ex­ca­va­tions in Lithua­nia and re­ally miss that sense of ad­ven­ture and com­mu­nal­ity that I used to feel find­ing all kinds of pre­his­toric and not so old ar­ti­facts, while slowly and me­thod­i­cally work­ing the soil with a group of friends. But with the years, I got dis­tanced from ar­chae­ol­ogy and don’t think about it when­ever I am on a mis­sion with MSF. Be­sides, se­cu­rity rules do not al­low me to go and in­spect ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in Ye­men.

Do you know where you will end up be­ing next with the Doc­tors With­out Borders?

I am plan­ning to take a small break now, but hope­fully will be back to busi­ness soon, wher­ever MSF pro­poses me to go.

Where do you see your­self in 20 years from now?

Ha! I hope we are trav­el­ling the world some­where with my wife and our chil­dren are happy do­ing what they love! In any case, I hope we are all im­prov­ing the world one step at a time.

My wife and I on our way to work in the morn­ing

An Ital­ian ER doc­tor as­sess­ing a child.

A health pro­moter at cholera treat­ment cen­ter

A mo­bile health pro­mot­ing team

A fes­tive lunch at the hos­pi­tal

My farewell

Ebola Man­age­ment cen­ter

Bye bye all!

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