Q: What was the first humanitarian aid mission that you got involved in and what motivated you to take part in it?
A: The first humanitarian mission I got involved with was in 1988, following the Earthquake in Armenia. What motivated me was the size of the disaster (which is now estimated to have caused between 25,000 and 50,000 casualties) and the poignancy of it being part of the then Soviet Union with its President, Gorbachev, visiting New York at the time.
Hopes were so high that the Cold War might be thawing and then the terrible earthquake occurred. Remarkably, Gorbachev asked for international help so me and some colleagues from the volunteer prehospital care team we had established in Manchester felt compelled to offer our help, which was accepted.
Q: The armed conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have been widely reported on in the Western media. What sort of work are you and UK-Med, of which you’re a founder, doing in these regions?
A: I founded UK-Med (a frontline humanitarian medical NGO) in 1988, originally as the South Manchester Accident Rescue Team (SMART), which acted in support of the rescue and ambulance services here. Since our first overseas aid mission to Armenia, we have responded to every major earthquake thereafter, disease outbreaks around the world, including Ebola in Sierra Leone and the DRC, and conflicts in Sarajevo, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Gaza (twice), Yemen, Myanmar, and Ukraine.
We have been running a range of programmes across Ukraine since a week after the war began. Currently, we are running programmes in reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation, mobile primary care clinics, mental health support, advanced trauma training, and mass casualty training.
In Gaza we have had a surgical team there for a few months and are treating war injuries, especially in children.
Q: There have been significant advancements in technology since you embarked on your career 30 years ago. What sort of improvements in international response efforts, if any, have you seen as a result?
A: There have been huge improvements over the last 30 years. For example, we have established international minimum standards for medical teams and an international registration system to ensure the right care, from the right teams, gets to the right people, at the right time.
The biggest technical improvement has probably been the mobile phone and, when these fail (not commonly now), lightweight handheld satellite phones. These mean you can consult with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. They also improve security. When I was first deployed, I was unreachable until I got back.
“From a medical perspective, the advent of portable handheld ultrasound machines means you can now perform lifesaving internal examinations at the bedside, in a tent. We now have a portable digital X-ray machine which we can use on patients. We can even use it in remote areas as it’s run off the generator that we use to power the field hospital.”
We can now also use handheld ‘point of care’ blood testing devices – a pinprick of blood can be analysed at the bedside using a small handheld device. It gives you an instant readout of most of what we used to need a full laboratory for. (I introduced these into the Manchester Nightingale hospital, of which I was Medical Director during the Covid-19 pandemic, as there was no onsite laboratory).
Q: Delivering medical assistance in such crises is incredibly dangerous. To give readers a further insight into the unique and extremely high-risk nature of humanitarian aid work, would you mind sharing details of some of the dangerous situations you have found yourself in.
A: The work is definitely dangerous. It takes its toll on those who do it and, especially, on those nearest and dearest to them. It’s certainly not for everyone.
“You will be scared – and I have been terrified many times – but you must be able to contain your fear and function. You equally can’t be cavalier, as doing so places both you and your team in danger, and if you or they die, you won’t help anyone. I still bear the physical and mental scars of this work.”
I was poisoned with heavy metals in Kosovo which hospitalised me and required many months of treatment. It left me with permanent neurological problems. I broke my back while working on a remote island in the South China Sea which has since left me with a shortened, curved spine, and ongoing symptoms.
I have found the constant threat of danger, that something could happen any minute, almost more stressful than when it does. I worked in Sarajevo for almost 4 years and the stress was terrible. There was constant shelling and sniper fire and I twice narrowly missed being shot by snipers, with the bullets going just over my head. Tank shells frequently exploded nearby, once just outside where I was sleeping. Colleagues died. I still have nightmares.
I was in Ukraine a year or so ago when 55 cruise missiles went over in the night. Most were shot down, but the debris killed people on the ground near to where I was staying. Having worked in the wars in Sarajevo and Kosovo I was prepared and found that I could draw on those experiences during these times.
Q: How do you remain optimistic, hopeful and motivated about your work and your desire to provide aid around the world, in such challenging conditions?
A: I have seen so many people do such good things. Giving of themselves so selflessly despite the awful risks, doing it simply to help someone in need. I have also received the most enormous kindness from those in greatest need. I have obviously also seen very bad people doing very bad things.
“I am not at all religious, but I know from experience that there are far more good people than bad people, and that goodness always prevails, no matter how long it takes.”
Thank you to Tony for taking the time to answer our questions.
Tony Redmond will be giving his talk – How can we best help those in need during and after a Humanitarian Crisis?– at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on the 12th March 2024.