War zone volunteer

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 11:39 05/08/2013
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DANGER ZONE: Being in the Afghanistan conflict took some getting used to for New Zealander Ben King.
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PEOPLE SKILLS: Ben King helps transfer a patient to an X-ray machine in Kunduz.

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Naomi Arnold talks to a globetrotting engineer from Mapua whose last adventure was working in Afghanistan hospitals.

For Ben King, it's all about the cycling. For the last decade he's been travelling the world on a shoestring and two wheels, indulging a wanderlust developed early on; he was 3 when he first picked up a National Geographic and became fascinated with the people and places within its pages.

The 31-year-old grew up in Mapua, finished Waimea College in 2000 and studied mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury. On a student exchange to Sweden in 2003, he found himself with a summer up his sleeve and not much money, and decided to cycle 2700km in southern Sweden and northern Norway.

"I was hooked," he says.

In the decade since, he's travelled a further 30,000km in 30 countries, cycling along roads in Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Morocco, Iraq and more, photographing and documenting his experiences on his blog, bikeben.com.

But while travelling, he says he was always looking for a way to do something useful for the people who lived in the places he passed through, and he decided to try and give something back.

After spending some time researching organisations to join, he chose international medical and humanitarian aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. He respected their work in delivering emergency aid to people all over the world who are affected by armed conflict, epidemics, poor access to healthcare, and natural or man-made disasters.

He applied to MSF and, after a lengthy process, was accepted. Once he'd finished basic introduction training in Sydney, in September last year he was offered a position in Afghanistan for a six-month stint as a flying biomedical technician, responsible for fixing hospital equipment at four hospitals throughout the war-torn country.

After so much travelling, Afghanistan wasn't such a culture shock; he was familiar with Iran and knew Afghanistan's culture and language were similar. "I'd always had a fascination with it, read articles and books and knew a fair bit about it but not the realities of being there," he says.

Upon arrival, he and his fellow MSF workers were quartered in Kabul, in a house of expats who worked at the hospitals: doctors, nurses, logisticians, electricians, administration staff, suppliers, and more, representing more than 30 countries. About 40 per cent were Belgian or French.

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Conflict was a constant neighbour, he says - but heard rather than seen. "Any time, you can hear blasts several times a week depending on where you are, different places, different frequency, sporadic gunfire or explosions - the odd truck tyre that explodes and everybody thinks it's a bomb," he says.

MSF workers had a 6pm curfew, and at night retreated to the "safe box", an area drawn on a map around the compound that was considered safe to move around, although explosions happened regularly in the lands around them. It took a while to adjust to living in a country at war, "and having so many weapons around".

"It made it seem more dangerous than it was, but by the time I left I was comfortable going most places in Kabul on the advice of people. We were well looked after."

His expertise with medical technologies has developed alongside his travelling over the past 10 years - he holds five patents for equipment he's developed.

In Sweden and Canada, among other things, he designed and built medical equipment for heart and lung transplants as well as equipment designed to assist in CPR. He designed a system for evaluating, reconditioning and preserving human lungs outside the body once a donor has become brain dead. The lungs are put into the system, reconditioned, and preserved until the recipient is ready for them.

The system contains a special fluid with a high osmotic pressure to draw out fluid that has collected after brain death.

Before he developed the system, 80 per cent of donated lungs had to be thrown out because they had too much oedema (fluid); with his system, 80 per cent of them should be able to be transplanted, and the technology is now used in big hospitals all around the world.

He's also made equipment such as a lift for his unwell father, and a folding wheelchair/recumbent bike for his brother. But despite all his experience in the medical field, this was the first time he'd worked in a hospital.

Medecins Sans Frontieres hospitals are pretty good, he says. "It's still basic compared to our standards; [they] don't have very advanced equipment but compared to what's available for Afghans otherwise, it's a huge improvement.

"It's a very challenging area to work in for everybody involved because of everything that goes on [in Afghanistan]," he says. "I think the organisation is doing its best to provide medical care where there isn't any otherwise."

His work involved sorting out medical equipment and trying to figure out problems on the fly.

"Half my day was spent dealing with urgent issues and trying to figure out solutions to what wasn't working," he says. "How to solve the problems and logistics is a big problem there - getting spare parts and equipment is really challenging and takes a long time."

Often they had to figure out workarounds, or simply try to get the parts as quickly as possible. That could take at least 10 days - often up to six months. While they waited, lives were at risk.

The rest of the time he spent developing a system for managing the biomedical equipment. He was responsible for 440 devices in four hospitals around the country, and worked on protocols and a system of managing them, as well as training medical staff in how to use the equipment.

One memorable job was fixing the diesel-fired incinerator used to destroy medical waste, which hadn't worked properly for six months. He spent two hours scrabbling among used bandages and syringes, as well as bones, with soot up to his elbows, but eventually got it going again.

Another skill to master, he wrote on a MSF blog, and also came to love, was kite-flying, something he was looking forward to seeing. As he arrived in Afghanistan and drove through the streets he saw kites dotted across the sky, children vying to cut down other kites using string coated in shards of glass.

But life as he saw it was "extremely challenging" for the people, he said; a tough environment, tough weather conditions, insecurity, poor infrastructure, and lack of access to healthcare.

He saw a lot of those effects while working at MSF's emergency mission, which provided basic healthcare services to people who fell through the gaps between NGOs. This work was in six camps in Kabul that saw 60 patients each time at free public clinics through the winter.

His job was to set up the clinic and sort out the patient workflow, funnelling them through a triage/waiting area, male and female consultation rooms, and pharmacy. Sometimes they'd use an abandoned building or a resident's home, but otherwise the clinics were run from a MSF tent.

After his six-month stint was over, Mr King went to Germany, where he continued to work from a distance for the heart transplant project in Sweden.

He tries to come home to New Zealand every year for one to six months. He's just visited Greenland, and next, his Kiwi girlfriend and he are planning a bike trip in North America to visit family and to see some of the States.

He says the biggest problem MSF faces in delivering medical services to needy people worldwide is the turnover of staff - volunteers stay only six months.

"To change every position in the organisation every six months you lose a lot of knowledge and follow-on," he says. "That's a big challenge, but generally the organisation is doing its best to provide what is a really difficult task."

- Nelson

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