From student to war doctor teacher

Dr Rebekka Troller, Colorectal Robotic Fellow and Emergency and General Surgery Consultant at Medway Hospital NHS, is one of our talented trainers. Here Dr Troller shares her journey into humanitarian work and her transition from student to teacher.

From student to teacher

I first met David at St Mary’s Hospital in 2019. I was the Trauma Fellow there and, in all honesty, – I didn’t know who David was! When people found out he was the Trauma Consultant I’d be working with they thought I was very lucky. I was quite embarrassed that I didn’t know him, but maybe it’s helped us have such a comfortable working relationship today.

When discussing my career, I told him that working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been my life-long ambition and is the reason I started studying medicine. It was also the main reason for me leaving Switzerland and coming to the UK, where I could work and train internationally. David was really encouraging, giving me guidance on how to enter the humanitarian field. To gain an insight into the work, he asked me to attend the Foundation’s upcoming STAE course.

It was one of the best surgical training courses I had ever experienced.

After taking part in the STAE course, I registered to work with MSF in 2019 and David asked if I’d consider being a trainer for the Foundation, teaching trauma surgical skills to war doctors in need.

Transitioning from someone who had experienced the course first-hand, to teaching, was really exciting. Being faculty at the Foundation and teaching multiple courses was also a great preparation for my work at MSF. In particular it helped me gain valuable skills for a mission in Cameroon, where I worked for two months as the only surgeon in a remote conflict area. In this situation I was really glad to know the techniques we teach at the courses, and it was reassuring to know that I can reach out to all my friends and mentors at the Foundation for advice, at all times.

Ever since I was little, I always knew humanitarian work was what I wanted to do. Seeing someone like David do what he does is a real inspiration and motivation for me.

He has always told me – if you want something, just go for it – this has always stuck with me.

Teaching war doctors for the first time

My first mission with the Foundation was in Yemen in 2020. I was teaching the cardiothoracic part of the course, helping the doctors perform thoracotomies or cardiac repairs at speed. I also supported the doctors throughout the course, as they learned other fields such as vascular or abdominal surgery.

I was very excited to be a part of the course. It was a small team, but a big adventure. It can be tense during travel through checkpoints, as we were never sure if we’d get through, but the team and our MSF partners were fantastic.

Yemen is also such a beautiful country. The mountains, scenery and people are beautiful – some even became friends. On the course, the 30 participants were very eager to learn. Many came with a lot of experience, but everyone learned something new – a technique they could improve or a surgery they’d never performed before.

Leaving a lasting legacy

The course is so important because we bring the training to them. For many doctors in conflict zones, even getting access to emails can be difficult, so bringing a course to their doorstep is so valuable. We want to reach every doctor who might be in need of new skills. Our aim is to leave them with knowledge they can share with their own colleagues or other people in their hospitals.

In some cases, we travel to dangerous regions because we want to empower local surgeons with life-saving knowledge. From speaking to participants, I know that the work of the Foundation is very much appreciated.

One participant told me they can feel forgotten, but by showing up we are saying: “We see you. We are thinking of you. You are not alone.”

Stories that stay with us

Being a faculty trainer means I get to meet very special individuals. Many war doctors live busy lives, working in under-resourced hospitals 24/7. I met surgeons from Syria who were working 10 hours away from their families, risking their lives on a daily basis. Despite these sorts of circumstances, the doctors are often very cheerful. They are grateful for life, which is incredibly humbling.

Now that we’ve entered 2022, the Foundation has big plans for surgical training courses this year. I can’t wait to get back on the road with the team – doing what I love.

David Nott Foundation
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