Picture Perfect?

Before reading this, take a moment to go and browse through your Facebook. Don’t be looking for what happened last Friday or what your ex is up to now, but instead, visit the profile of friends who have gone overseas for placements or volunteering and look at their photos. Once you’ve done that, come back and allow me to tell you about the day I met Emmanuel.

A few months after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, I found myself volunteering in Léogâne, a city of around 100,000 people. The city was near the epicenter of the earthquake and as many as 30,000 were killed here in the disaster. Due to the earthquake, not only were homes and businesses of many people destroyed but the health facilities in the city were decimated as well. Because of this destruction of local health facilities, residents were forced to seek care at foreign-run temporary replacements such as the field hospital where I volunteered. This is how I met Emmanuel.

Emmanuel was a 28 year old labourer who was brought in by friends while experiencing an asthma exacerbation. He had a long history of asthma, which was often made worse by the dust that he worked amongst. He initially appeared to be experiencing his typical asthma attack that usually resolved with salbutamol. The small oxygen concentrator used to provide him with nebulized salbutamol seemed to be providing some relief. However, after a few minutes of improvement, his condition suddenly deteriorated. Emmanuel began to display the unnerving appearance of someone who has reached the point of complete exhaustion from breathing. The only monitoring equipment available was an old pulse oximeter, but even this told an alarming story. The oxygen saturation dropped from a high of around 95% to 89% and his heart rate plummeted from 110 to 45 beats per minute. Emmanuel was close to death. Adrenaline was administered and repeated in hopes stopping this deterioration. After a few very tense minutes, Emmanuel’s condition improved and it became evident that there would be a happy ending to this story.

But this story is not really about what happened to Emmanuel during the worst of his exacerbation but rather is about what happened immediately after. At this point when things were calming down, one of the foreign volunteer nurses, who had been contributing to his care, took a picture of Emmanuel. He did agree to this but he certainly wasn’t in a position to truly give informed consent for this. In your Facebook friends’ photo albums you will likely find pictures of their Emmanuels.

The desire to capture a lasting image of someone whose care you have helped with overseas is understandable. For some reason, it even seems to be socially acceptable. None of us would ever take a picture of a patient on the wards. How is it that we don’t frown upon pictures of patients taken overseas?

Enjoy your overseas volunteering or placements. Take lots of pictures when touring around the country. When at the hospital though, patients deserve the same respect as they get here in Australia.

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