Medicines Sans Frontiers’ Alvin Teo: Brother Not Borders


Médecins Sans Frontières' Alvin Teo: Brother Not Borders

Malaysian Alvin Teo could have a cushy life in pharmaceuticals. Instead he chose to dodge bullets and court danger in some of the world’s worst strife-torn hotspots. He shares his feats of derring do with Yasmin Shahira.

People don’t always end up doing what they had planned to do.

In the case of 31-year-old Alvin Teo, armed with a Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacy, he set out on a typical career path upon graduating; securing a steady gig as pharmacist at a hospital in his home state, Malacca.

But after two-and-half years working in the hospital, Alvin wanted to apply his skills to a greater purpose. He wanted to push himself out of a professional comfort zone.

“I wanted to see if I can bring my skills sets to more people out there who really need help. That is how it all started.”

With that in mind, he seeked out Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation with French origin.

“One fine day, I just googled “Doctors Without Borders” and it directed me to MSF USA website.”

“And there it was on the side bar saying “Urgently Needed: Surgeon, Anaesthetist and Pharmacist”. So, I thought “Okay, Why not?”

After a few rounds of interview, Alvin was off to conflict-ridden South Sudan, which in early 2013; the country was facing an influx of refugees due to renewed intertribal conflict.

MSF operated a hospital and ran mobile clinics as well as vaccination campaigns in one of the camps that housed some 40,000 refugees.

Alvin, who has grown used to working in a sterile, organised hospital environment found himself out of his depth in the early days of his deployment.

“It’s like going on a roller coaster ride. There are a lot of ups and a lot of downs.”

“Out there in an environment that I wasn’t very familiar with, it was very difficult to achieve the things that you want to do. It’s not just work but also the environment, working with people from different cultural backgrounds. So there are a lot of things to juggle more than just being a pharmacist.”

The Sudan deployment was indeed a challenging one, Alvin admits, but nonetheless an 'amazing' and fulfilling experience. During his six month stint there, his role - like other MSF field workers - also often involve dealing with medical activities that are sometimes beyond their expertise.

“Back in the hospital, I was doing more clinical work but in MSF I was doing a lot more management, supply and distribution work. In South Sudan, for example, I was managing a pharmacy for a a field hospital in the middle of a refugee camp.”

“So, I was responsible to manage supply of drugs and medical devices and also distributing them to use in the hospital. I work closely with the logistics and supply team to get that done.”

After Sudan, Alvin went on to serve in Ukraine in November 2013, Pakistan in September 2014 and back to Ukraine again in May 2015. He is currently doing a PhD in Public Health at the University of Singapore and sits on the Board of MSF Hong Kong.

Every year, MSF sends around 3,000 international field workers to work alongside to provide medical aid to people in over 70 countries, mostly those with poor living conditions as a result of armed conflict, epidemics or natural disasters.

“We treat everyone, regardless of skin colour, religion, political affiliation. We are independent, partial and neutral. So we treat everyone the same. So as long as you are sick, you need medical care, we will treat you,” says Alvin.

There are currently only 20 active MSF field workers from Malaysia stationed around the world.

Alvin, through his experience, hopes to inspire and encourage more Malaysians to join the mission and be more active in global humanitarian work.

“I think Malaysia has an amazing talent pool - be it medical trained staff and non-medical trained staff.”

“Even though MSF is a medical mission, we don’t employ only doctors or nurses. It’s a multidisciplinary team. We need medical staff to perform medical activities, we need the non-medical staff to support the medical team as well. So we have a team of logisticians to help with hospitals to ensure that we have electricity and water in the field,” Alvin explains. MSF field workers work alongside 32,000 locally hired staff in countries around the world .

“We also have sanitation experts to help us find clean water. We have finance admin manager to manage finances in the team to employ local staff, to pay salaries.”

“Malaysians who are interested should get to know more about MSF and other international organisations. I think Malaysians can contribute to the humanitarian work worldwide.”