Dr. Joanne Liu has devoted her life’s work to helping those in need. As the former president of the International President of Doctors Without Borders, she is no stranger to health emergencies. I sat down with Dr. Liu to talk about her experiencing various epidemics and conflicts, and her recent trip to Ukraine supporting medical services.
Born in Montreal, Dr. Liu is a physician at the Saint-Justine Pediatric Emergency Department, and a professor at the McGill School of Population and Global Health, where she focuses on pandemics and health emergencies.
She is also leading the university’s efforts to prepare for future health emergencies as the Director of the Pandemic and Health Emergency Readiness Lab (PERL) whose mission is to develop solutions to handle current crises, but also train and shape the leaders of tomorrow to best manage what’s to come – and that’s a future of more pandemics, she said.
Between the 2003 SARS outbreak, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and the spread of Ebola and Zika, the last few years demonstrated a worrisome trend for Dr. Liu. She warns that epidemics turning into pandemics might very well become an increasing recurrence.
“What you see is the acceleration of recurrences of those local epidemics to pandemics, and to a certain extent, it’s linked to the pressure of on our environment.”
In fact, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last August advances that the estimated increase in diseases from animal reservoirs linked to environmental change lead to a high probability of more pandemics similar to Covid-19. The yearly probability of such extreme epidemics could increase up to “threefold in the coming decades,” states the study.
“We’re putting so much pressure on the environment, that we create viruses that jump from animals to human beings,” she explained.
Having personally lived through numerous health emergencies, Dr. Liu advocates for leadership that is an action-oriented mindset, and governance that is deeply preoccupied with the wellbeing and safety of others as well as Nature.
“If we are able to send robots to Mars, I’m sure we can deal with this,” she said. “We need a reality check. We have to embrace the fact that we are so interconnected and interdependent that whatever happens on the other side of the planet will eventually affect us. ”
On the front line in the emergency in Ukraine
Aside from health emergencies, PERL is also concerned with humanitarian crises, including the current situation in Ukraine.
Dr. Liu recently spent over three weeks in the eastern European country, putting her expertise to much-needed use as a doctor as part of a Doctors Without Borders exploratory mission. She explains that the mission revolved around three central points to prepare healthcare workers with the influx of war-wounded patients.
First were the contributions of medical supply, but also in terms of training staff for triage, mass casualty, and the preparation of emergency set-ups in hospital bases.
However, the needs did not stop within hospitals walls, as there was an urgency with bringing medical care to people in camps or to those who decided to stay in places where there had been a call for evacuation with mobile clinics.
Additionally, freeing hospital beds near the front line posed a challenge amid the influx of new patients needing medical attention. In order to move patients from the eastern part of the country to the western side, the organization began medical evacuations by train as of April 1 to safely accommodate numerous patients at once.
“We basically refurnished the wagons to turn them into a hospital type of environment and staffed them with emergency physician and assistants, nurse, and logicians, ”said Dr. Liu. At the time of the interview, it is estimated that a total of 450 patients had been evacuated by train.
During these operations, Dr. Liu was primarily occupied with screening patients to make sure they were stable and fully equipped for the trip.
“It’s my commitment to contribute in times of crisis,” shared Dr. Liu. “I felt compelled to go to Ukraine, knowing what was going on and the fact that there were calls for experienced people to go work there. I worked in some of the toughest places, and so I can sustain that kind of stress and I have something to offer. ”
“Leadership is about humility and about being able to listen and take stock of what is happening to you, managing your insecurities, and the strength of people around you,” she said.
Stephanie Ricci contributed to this story.