Before he was diagnosed with the first case of Ebola in New York City, before his life was subject to public scrutiny, Dr. Craig Spencer was a little known International Emergency Medical (IEM) fellow at Columbia University in New York.
Earlier this year he traveled to Africa to support local physicians with clinical work as well a with data collection for epidemiological studies.
In May, according to this profile in Emergency Physicians International, he was working to collect data about dangerous health practices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was trying to figure a way to introduce Western medicine in a society that, although accepting of vaccination and other cures, didn’t seem to abandon certain traditional beliefs:
“Would it make more sense for us to do uvulectomies in safe, sterile environments where people don’t have to pay? Would we be better off doing ‘A’ to get to ‘B’ rather than just heading to ‘B’ directly?”
“Long term change is going to be dependent on outside institutions being pragmatic for on-the-ground solutions. Future IEM success will depend on community education, covering topics like domestic violence, uvulectomies and HIV. For example, a lot of people thought seizures were contagious.”
Spencer saw firsthand the tragically scarce resources available in the countries where he was working: “sometimes even aspirin just weren’t available,” something he likely experienced during his time in Guinea this month too, given the difficulties West African countries are facing in providing adequate care.
In South Burundi he worked alongside doctors from Burundi and Congo was impressed by their expertise:
“The physicians in Burundi are some of the best I’ve ever come across, I couldn’t have triaged and treated patients as well,” he says.
At the end of the interview, he discusses the importance of collaboration between local experts and international humanitarian aid:
“Without someone on-the-ground who knows the area and its people collecting information, the likelihood that you are going to do more harm than good is pretty high.”
Spencer is one of the healthcare professionals who cared about emergencies like Ebola before it reached the West. He understood the way out of this epidemic: collaboration between local forces and international aid.
This is something we should remember as we’re quick to place blame on Spencer for not isolating himself after coming back from Africa, instead of remembering the cause he was trying to serve.
These photos of Spencer in Rwanda and Burundi are published with permission from EPI, which obtained the photos directly from Spencer: