Friday May 05, 2017

'I didn't care very much whether I lived or died': ER doctor shares the moment that saved his life

Emergency physician James Maskalyk, author of Life on the Ground Floor, spoke to The Current in April about lessons he learned working in Toronto and Addis Ababa.  Now he shares the moment that changed his life.

Emergency physician James Maskalyk, author of Life on the Ground Floor, spoke to The Current in April about lessons he learned working in Toronto and Addis Ababa. Now he shares the moment that changed his life. (Courtesy of James Maskalyk)

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>> Moments of Disruption is part of our season-long series, The Disruptors

As soon as James Maskalyk finished his medical residency, he headed out to fulfill his dream of working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). He landed at a field hospital in war-torn Sudan — and discovered that he was not prepared for what he found there.

Life on the Ground Floor book cover

(Penguin Random House)

"I had these high hopes of how I'd be able to address the needs of the patients and the people there," says Maskalyk.

"However, I stepped off the plane into a world that was even more difficult than I had anticipated."

Related: Life lessons from an ER doctor

While working in Sudan, Maskalyk became MSF's first blogger — but without access to the internet, he couldn't read his own posts.

'I could walk into a plane's propeller and not feel that I would be missing out too much on what life had to offer.' - James Maskalyk

After six months, Maskalyk returned to Toronto, shaken by the experience.

"I had ingested some of the suffering that I was so close to," says Maskalyk.

"And I don't think I'm alone when I say that I didn't care very much whether I lived or died. In fact, I could walk into a plane's propeller and not feel that I would be missing out too much on what life had to offer."

But other than friends and family, what awaited him was a book deal, based on his blogs for MSF.

"That book saved me," says Maskalyk.

"What happened after is not just was I able to wrestle with that difficult experience in a way that helped it make sense," he recalls.

"I was able to recover the motivation that led me to Sudan in the first place."

Listen to James Maskalyk's moment of disruption at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.