A passion for humanitarianism has propelled this Tasmanian anaesthetist to far flung places.
Tasmanian anaesthetist Haydn Perndt’s passion for humanitarianism is a force that has propelled him from conflict-ravaged Somalia to occupied post-war Cambodia, and a whole catalogue of places in between.
“I remember flying into Mogadishu in the middle of the civil war, coming down over a ravaged city to land on an old dirt airstrip. The runway was surrounded by Toyota Landcruisers, all with their backs cut down with guns sticking out,” says the 59-year-old former director of Royal Hobart Hospital’s Anaesthesia Department. “Over in one corner, waiting for me, was a Landcruiser with a Red Cross emblem.
“The protection and trust that comes with that emblem is what Red Cross is about. You know you’re part of a huge international organisation, and that your local Red Cross or Red Crescent counterparts are out there and are the guarantee of your safety – you are just coming to help out.”
Dr Perndt began working for Red Cross 20 years ago, after a two-year volunteer stint teaching anaesthetics to a local nurse on the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. “That time on Santo, with the Canadian University Services Overseas, was a seminal professional and personal experience … it was a turning point.”
After Vanuatu, Dr Perndt moved to Tasmania with his young family, to take up a job at the Royal Hobart Hospital. “There I met a theatre sister, the sort who ruled the theatres with an iron fist. She was a really impressive person and had been on a few missions with the International Committee of the Red Cross – the ICRC. It was a bit of serendipity really. I was looking for something I didn’t find in my regular work – and she sparked an idea.”
Within six months Dr Perndt was on his way to Cambodia, at the time occupied by the Vietnamese, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He was heading to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Cambodia/Thai border for a three-month posting at the camp’s ICRC-run surgical hospital.
“Every few days we would have a call about a clash, some shelling or an ambush. The ambulances would go out and bring back multiple wounded soldiers or civilians. A lot of the work was also treating people with mine injuries – I had never seen that kind of devastating injury before.
“It was an incredibly emotionally challenging experience; confronting, and at times pretty depressing, but there were some great saves. We see a lot of things on TV now, but it doesn’t really prepare you for the horrible brutality of modern weapons and the things that happen to people caught up in the conflict.”
Juggling family and time away from work, Dr Perndt has been on Red Cross missions to hotspots in the midst of conflict, like East Timor, Somalia, and the Sudan. He is on the on-call register for Médecins Sans Frontières, has spent time in Bougainville with the Australian Defence Force’s peacekeepers, and he went with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons to help in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan a few years ago.
In Somalia he was part of a Red Cross four-member Flying Surgical Team, providing care to the wounded on both sides of the conflict. The team would fly into the country’s latest trouble spots, at one stage heading behind rebel lines in neighbouring Djibouti. They would set up a makeshift operating theatre wherever space was available – a derelict hospital, a converted prison, a dusty piece of unclaimed ground, and do the surgery that was possible in the circumstances.
To effectively operate in insecure and sometimes lawless countries, he says you have to “suspend your normal reality frameworks, because you can’t operate if you are paralysed by fear. After a week or so, you have adjusted and get on with the job, and Red Cross provides good security training. I think in many respects it’s much harder for the people at home, because they don’t reset their reality.
“The living and working conditions were very basic, sleeping in a small tent – a mozzie dome – washing in a bucket, operating in hot dusty conditions with temperatures often well into the forties. Our Somali hosts were always generous and kind, making sure we ate and drank and were as comfortable as the circumstances allowed.”
Dr Perndt hasn’t forgotten the morning in Las Anod in Somalia when the team turned up expecting to find war wounded, but instead found a pregnant woman in advanced labour and in need of help. “The surgeon and I hadn’t done obstetrics since medical school, and the nurses hadn’t done midwifery – somehow I was volunteered to do the delivery.
“You’re thinking about all the issues that come up in a very strict Islamic culture – I thought: ‘Do I have to cover my eyes?’ And add to the mix, most women in that setting have had ritual circumcision, which is why they get obstructed labour… But anyway I helped deliver a healthy baby girl before I was quickly ushered out of the room.” That baby is still the only one he has ever delivered since medical school.
Alongside the work in conflict zones and emergencies, Dr Perndt takes assignments in developing countries teaching anaesthesia, as well as helping to build local capacity. He has a long involvement with the Australian Society of Anaesthetists, and its establishment of an Anaesthesia Training Program in Fiji. Dr Perndt – who was last year awarded an AM – is also on the board of the not-for-profit Primary Trauma Care Foundation.
“Aid and development work is enriching. You don’t feel like you have changed the world, but you feel like you have done something; just a small contribution against the tide of darkness. There are so many tragedies happening around us. You can’t switch on the news without being affected. Working with Red Cross at least gives you a chance to be involved … and it’s the sum of many small efforts, ultimately doing something that’s worthwhile.”
Earlier this year Dr Perndt was in Israelon the West Bank, on a Canadian Society of Anaesthetists’ project helping to train young Palestinian anaesthetists, and next on the agenda is work in Cambodiafor a Primary Trauma Care course,then Myanmarin December with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons to do another trauma course.There is no shortage of opportunities.
The Australian Red Cross aid worker program is partly funded by AusAID, and there are currently more than 50 aid workers in the field, in countries ranging from Somalia to Samoa.
There will always be more to do. Fingers crossed, there will never be a shortage of humanitarians.
Words: Kim Batchelor