July 18

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Rediscovering wonderment

One of the things that most struck me most when I started working at GSK four and half years ago was the insane amount of brainpower that surrounded me. Big brains with bright ideas were everywhere. My contribution as a communications specialist playing with words paled in comparison to what these brains did. Chemists, scientists, doctors, engineers, health economists, regulatory boffins – there was a whole ecosystem of intellect churning within the company. I felt constantly awe-struck by the newness and magnitude of it all.

Reminiscent of the overeager grasshopper from Karate Kid, I asked a lot and learned a lot in those early days. But, as with everything, the ‘wowness’ faded over time. The significance of the work being done never diminished, things just became… normal.

Now, nearly three weeks into my PULSE assignment with AMREF Flying Doctors, the moments for ‘wowness’ are back. Like most charitable organisations, the vision of AMREF and the Flying Doctors started with little more than heartfelt desire to help others and the will to do something about it.

In 1956 reconstructive surgeons Tom Rees, Michael Wood and Archibald McIndoe sat in the shadows of the mighty Kilimanjaro and decided to combine their specialist surgical and aviation skills to form Africa’s first aero-medical service.

The archives are impressive. Cotton-soft and tattered, black and white photos and age-stained documents tell some remarkable stories of those early years. True pioneers who, despite the hurdles, made things happen because people needed what they had to give.

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AFD archives: Founding fathers of AMREF Flying Doctors (Wood, McIndoe & Rees) Dental1
AFD archives: Dental surgery in East Africa in the late 1950s

I was full of ‘wows’ musing through the visitors centre on my first day – so many testimonials of greatness and gratitude. The emotions of wonderment started to resurface. Oh the brains – not just doctors but pilots too, doing so much in the most difficult of circumstances. I took to Google to learn more and came across some sage parental encouragement Tom Rees received from his father:

“I shall not mind what profession you choose but I do hope that whatever it is, sometime in your life at least, you will find a way to help other people.”

Hidden in the simplicity of his request, was probably my biggest wow moment yet. Rees’ father wasn’t overly ambitious or forceful in his request. He was gentle and humble. His words spoke to me in volumes and reminded me that big brains is helpful to have, depending on the profession you choose, but it means little without the warm-heartedness of humanity and the determination to make a difference. This wasn’t a revelation. Of course I knew humanity mattered but, for some reason from where I am standing this had a different meaning.

Unlike Rees, Wood or McIndoe, my contribution won’t be medicine or aviation, for my brain is not big enough for anatomy or physics. Instead, my contribution to help others will be a less awe-inspiring but no less important set of skills – communications. Over the course of the next six months I will be helping AMREF Flying Doctors identify business development and fundraising opportunities. Two aspects that are critical if they are to continue to provide charitable air evacuations and aero-medical transport for clinical outreach services alongside their commercial enterprise.

This would be relatively straightforward if I was in Australia or perhaps even England where I understand more about the opportunities and challenges. But I’m not, I’m in Kenya and things are different.

AMREF Flying Doctors operate in a wonderfully contradictory way – uncomplicated service delivery in a very complicated environment. Conversations here are not about refining process and procedure. They’re about navigating inadequate runways and poor infrastructure, security clearances for inter-regional transfers and conflict zones, visas and passport checks, and of course, let’s not forget the ever-narrowing funding streams and increasing competition for money to keep things going (no pressure Alicia!).

I can’t pretend I am not still slightly girly about working with the big brains of pilots and medics (a leopard can’t change her spots), but if I am to take anything from the subliminal messages given by Rees’ father and my first few weeks working here it’s that the size of your brain is irrelevant. It’s what you do with it that really counts.

*** Read more about AMREF Flying Doctors