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#MyImpactStory | Working for the ICRC as an anaesthetist - Meet Francoise Labat

Author photo

by Patrik Klingbert
Communications Director

The anaesthetist is part of the ICRC mobile surgical team deployed in certain contexts when required, often in limited resources settings and challenging security environment. Read Impactpool's interview with Francoise Labat who is sharing her career story working as an anaesthetist in hardship areas around the world. #MyImpactStory

What is your job description within the ICRC? Can you describe a typical work-week?

From one side, it’s the same work as for any Anesthesiologist in the world. We are providing patient care as pre, per and post-operative care with pain management. But then working as the ICRC Anesthesiologist we have also the duty to check all the equipment and that all the drugs are available when we need them. An important part is capacity-building where we are working with local teams, sometimes with Ministry of Health teams, we provide some training so that they can perform and practice at the level and quality of patient care that is expected.

Why did you want to start working in the humanitarian sector and what was your entry point?

I was a medical student in France in the 1990’s and that was the big boom of French doctors going out to crisis areas such as Ethiopia and Sarajevo, and I wanted to do something too to be a part of it. As soon as I had enough of knowledge and the capacity to leave I started to work for a French NGO, Médecins du Monde.

What is your educational background?

I’m a Medical Doctor with a specialization in anaesthesia. I haven’t done anything else but Medicine in my working life.

What was your first field assignment after you finished your education?

My first assignment was with a French NGO, Médecins du Monde in East Timor in 1999, just after the declaration of independence of the country. At that time, I was working as a General Practitioner.

Why did you choose to work for the ICRC after 10 years working for other humanitarian organizations?

I really wanted to join the ICRC because for me they provide the highest level of comprehensive interventions for populations in conflict zones. I thought for a long time that I could never work for the ICRC because I don’t speak so many languages. Finally, after working in the field for a long time, I began to understand what  ICRC was. I decided to give it a go and send my application. This was a decision I have never regret and I’m very proud of my experiences. And the people I have met in this institution, from different fields and departments, have given me a very good impression on what the ICRC can do for the population in conflict areas.

When did you join the ICRC and what was your first assignment?

I joined the ICRC in 2012. At that time, I was graduated as an Anaesthetist Doctor and I had a few years of experience with different NGOs. I started to work with them in Peshawar in Pakistan.

How many missions have you done with the ICRC so far?

From 2012 to 2016 I have been working full time with the ICRC. I have been in different countries: Pakistan, Chad, DRC, Lebanon, Burundi, and recently, to Nigeria. Now I came back to France to catch up with western anaesthesia, not to lose my skills and I will continue with short missions and give three months a year to the ICRC.

Tell us the story about what you consider as your biggest reward(s) during your career? Or your proudest moment?

There are many rewards in being an anesthetist. On a daily base, you have the reward from patient care. When you receive patients in a very bad shape but they leave the surgical ward on their feet, and they can smile and eat again this is a daily reward for us. It makes life easier in these difficult areas. Every single day you can see the effects of what you are doing and you can see the benefits for patients.

Besides the patient care, all the situations with team capacity building have brought me huge rewards. For example, if you leave a team and they can manage to continue the good work without you, that’s a reward.

What has been the greatest challenges during your career?

I have seen two different kinds of challenges. The first is the feeling of frustration when human violence is so hard that you cannot work anymore. For example, I had to leave a few missions, not because we did not have enough of work, but because it was too dangerous to continue. It’s a huge challenge, and frustrating, to have to deal with these decisions, but of course you have to stay alive and be able to come back home. But it’s hard to accept because you are leaving people in despair and in bad situations.

The second challenge, is when the team doesn’t function and it creates difficulties. That’s why a part of your individual job is to take your strengths and bring a good spirit to the team so that everything is working and that the team is working as a group. When a team becomes dysfunctional it is also very challenging.

Is there anything about working in this field that you did not expect when starting?

I was a young doctor when I started. I left my comfort zone in France and I thought I would bring a lot to the others but instead, I received a lot of knowledge and experience, and I learned a lot of myself from others.

What are the most important lessons that you would like to share with anyone interested in pursuing a humanitarian career?

Keep your eyes open and stay positive. In any difficult situation that you will encounter you can always find a common ground with other people and look for the positive action. If you build on this, your team will go much further than if you close yourself and stay on your side. Keeping up a good team spirit and a positive approach is the best lesson for me. This you can practice and learn on a daily basis.

Do you have personal habits or traits that have been critical for your career? Or coping mechanism that you would like to share?

Yes, I like to mention two of them. Baking is one of them. I always bring some yeast, baking powder, and chocolate with me when I leave home for a mission. It’s always a good treat when you come back from a busy day at the operation theatre and you start making pie or prepare bread for the next breakfast. That can bring a lot of smiles from the team and that is always good. Maybe I am buying my popularity with chocolate and baking (laughing).

The second important thing to cope in hardship is to keep a bit of privacy. Reading is for me very important. Nowadays you have electronic books so you have the possibility to bring a lot of books with you. You can have half an hour to one hour a day of peace and quiet time by yourself, just to read and try to find yourself again.

What do you believe are the most important skill(s) needed for an international career in your job field? And for the ICRC?

The most important skill for me as an anaesthetist is to be autonomous. Of course, you are in a team with a surgeon and nurses but in the field, you are the only anaesthetist so you need to be strong and have the knowledge and the capacity to adapt. You need to be open-minded and flexible because the circumstances will be different to what you are used to at home. You need to be curious to be able to find the right solutions wherever you are working. You cannot do a copy and paste of what you know, you need to adapt. The last but not the least is that you need to have the respect of other people’s knowledge and experiences.

We know that many of our followers would like to hear some advice on how to get a job with the ICRC. Do you have any good tips to share?

The classical answer would be to go to the website. Although, I see the ICRC, not as a regular organization. There is a specific spirit, philosophy, and values that are very important in this institution. I really would recommend to people who wish to apply to try to understand the dimension of the ICRC. It is not just doing your job as an anaesthetist, the ICRC has a very strong mandate. When you apply for this job, try to understand what is independence and neutrality in humanitarian action, what is protection, assistance and all the comprehensive approach to the populations in need in conflict zones.

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Photo: The ICRC, Francoise Laban (far left) with team members

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