These difficulties make my love for Chechya even stronger - national staff interview
Aiza (the name has been changed), an MSF gynaecologist working in Chechnya, travels each day with a paediatrician, nurses, general practitioner and mental health counsellor for their weekly visit to five different locations in a rural area of Chechnya. The years of conflict have ravaged the local health infrastructure, and not only through physical damage.
Many local health personnel fled the republic in search of a better life elsewhere. As a consequence, the once-envied Soviet system of rural health posts that fed larger hospitals is hopelessly understaffed.
In the areas where MSF works the population often relies solely on an over-worked 'feldshers' (nurse practitioners) who do what they can with the scant resources they have available. MSF has been operational in rural Chechnya since July 2005 and will soon expand its mobile team to cover another four settlements.
"Before I joined MSF just over a year ago, I worked in one of the state polyclinics in Grozny. But I was not satisfied with the quality of what I was doing there and the conditions in which I had to work. Now I've joined MSF and one of the best things about it is the excellent relationships and co-operation we have within our team. The more we work together the more we become like a family, and the more I enjoy my job.
"Each day we have to travel for about one hour from Grozny into the countryside. The travelling is hard. Many of the places we visit are in very beautiful surroundings - set among mountains, and with pure forest all around - but most houses are either destroyed or 'wounded' by years of war. Some houses were bombed and, although families use all the spare money they have to try and rebuild their homes, you can still see the scars of the bullet holes in the gates. Some people have run out of money too, so there is a lot of half-finished construction.
"In each place we work, MSF has rehabilitated a couple of rooms in the local health post or dispensary. These are small (4mx3m) and quite basic, and we had some problems with heating and water to start with. We normally arrive to find a queue of people, and the feldsher, waiting for us. We work closely with the feldshers, who, despite not being highly trained, are made wise through their years of practical experience.
"They know all the ins and outs of the history of their local patients - we sometimes say that you don't need the patient's medical card, you can just ask the feldsher. They help us prioritise the sick, and ask us for advice and prescriptions. Altogether we see about 75-85 patients between 9am and 3pm each day.
"Anaemia is very frequent. I think of it as a social illness in fact, as is it is so common where living conditions are bad, unemployment is high and nutrition is inadequate. We've been living in a constant state of alarm in Chechnya for so long that it ages and exhausts us and our physical health suffers.
"I also see lots of pregnant women. Did you know that Chechnya has one of the highest birth rates in Russia? We use express tests for haemoglobin and glucose and we do have access to free lab tests for our patients in one of the Grozny hospitals. But often the quality of the results isn't good, so I rely a lot on clinical signs to diagnose my patients.
"Lots of what I do isn't strictly medical - time has shown me that it is really important to educate my patients too. There is, after all, no point me treating someone if they don't also take responsibility for their own health. I remind the women that see me about basic hygiene and tell them that they should try and buy cotton underwear to avoid infections, even if the synthetic stuff is much cheaper.
"I really work on persuading my pregnant mothers that the health of their child will depend on how they look after themselves during pregnancy - they need to rest and eat as well as possible.
"We're too far away from a town to go anywhere when we break for lunch, so we collect together things to eat on our journey. Sometimes patients also bring us food to say thank you - in fact yesterday we received some manti [traditional local dumplings] and some sweet tea. We lay out what we have on our 'family' table and gather round - there is lots of laughter and jokes.
"Our work only really scratches the surface. We know that lots of the ill people who come to us need extensive tests and inpatient care. But after the way that they have suffered, they often have no money, and I know that if I tell them to go to hospital they won't.
"It's not just the money but also lots of other things, like the poor drugs and the logistical difficulties of getting there and leaving the family behind. So I try to do my best, and at least make sure that, if I can't cure someone, I can prevent them getting worse.
"Our patients express real, heartfelt gratitude for our presence. I don't think that they fully understand what MSF is, but they often say 'thanks to you and those that sent you'. For most people it means a lot to them that we have come specifically to care for them - caring has not been something there has been much of here in recent years. One of my regular patients, a man who has had a very hard life and been in prison, even wrote a poetic tribute to our work.
"Personally, I get a real sense of satisfaction from what I do, and I can see the results of my work. Although I am usually really tired at the end of the day it is a satisfied kind of weariness.
"People sometimes ask me why I stayed in Chechnya and didn't leave. I think back to when I worked through the war, trapped by a blockade for months without electricity and water, and I think about the suffering I still see around me. But I reply that these difficulties have, if anything, made my love for Chechnya stronger. It is my home."