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Marie-Jose has been more than on 35 missions, helping victims of armed conflicts and working in places affected by disease outbreaks and natural disasters.
A Doctor Without Borders

Marie-Jose Michelet has been a member of Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, for 30 years. Over this time Marie-Jo, as her colleagues affectionately call her, has been on 35 missions, helping victims of armed conflicts and working in places affected by disease outbreaks and natural disasters.

After retiring from the organization Marie-Jose Michelet became an anesthesiologist at a hospital in Paris, but she still spends the majority of her time off with Doctors Without Borders, which has grown and developed in front of her very eyes. The latest mission she volunteered for took place in August of last year, bringing her to Yemen’s Aden to help victims of a civil war.

Marie-Jose’s incredible story began in 1985. Back then she had only four years of experience as a nurse under her belt. Three of those years were spent at a provincial French hospital, and one — in northern Mali. Her time in Mali had a profound effect on her: she worked in a public health education program run by a small French association in partnership with Malian doctors. “As I was giving out advice on sanitary safety and proper hygiene to reduce the rate of infectious diseases spreading at clinics and schools, the country was struck by a terrible draught. The people of Gao suffered from cholera and hunger, and I was unable to ease their suffering. I felt completely powerless and quit,” Marie-Jose remembers.

Disheartened by this experience, the young nurse returned to Paris and found temporary work. Shortly after she met a female doctor from Doctors Without Borders, who was temporarily covering for a colleague in between two missions. “She spoke of her work with such enthusiasm that I finally worked up the nerve and knocked on the doors of a little room that housed the organization’s headquarters back then,” Marie-Jose says.

Doctors Without Borders was a much smaller organization at the time, but it already had a great reputation. One of its most famous advertisements proclaimed: “We have two billion people in our waiting room.”

“We provided emergency medical care and had to be very resourceful. Our medical centers would often become an oasis in a desert of indifference, and patients came pouring in.”

“I had very little experience. I only got my MD in tropical medicine in 1987,” says Marie-Jose. But the organization took her in right away because it had plenty of challenges ahead and was grateful for any help. “We provided emergency medical care and had to be very resourceful. Our medical centers would often become an oasis in a desert of indifference, and patients came pouring in. But even then, we strove to provide high-quality, substantial medical assistance,” she recalls.

As time went by, the organization expanded its range of functions: in addition to providing direct medical assistance, it became an eyewitness to people’s suffering, resulting in the expulsion of its mission from Ethiopia in 1985.

When the organization called for volunteers to work at refugee camps in Latin America, Marie-Jo was already training and learning Spanish to join the mission. At the same time, Ethiopia was suffering from terrible famine. The coordinator of the volunteer search asked Marie-Jose whether she spoke English and suggested that she work on improving her language skills. “I went to England for a month and did an intensive language course. As a result, my first mission was to Afghanistan, where I didn’t get to speak much English, but it was an unbelievable adventure nonetheless. My loyalty to the cause was born right there and then,” says Marie-Jose.

“To help and to testify”

Marie-Jose chose the nursing profession because she wanted to work beyond France’s borders. This was why DWB’s mission, which included assisting those who suffered in critical situations, witnessing the tragedies and giving people hope and protection, appealed to her right away.

Her very first missions put Marie-Jose in real danger. In order to get to the DWB hospital, which was hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan, she had to secretly make her way across Pakistan wearing men’s clothing and accompanied by the Mujahideen.

Between 1986 and 1991, Marie-Jose has worked in war-ravaged Angola, Cambodia and Congo. Most of the time, she was a member of volunteer teams made up of just four people who had to work under strenuous conditions under the constantly looming threat of air strikes.

In January 1997 Marie-Jose went to Somalia as the organization’s medical coordinator and had a very hard time finding volunteers for this very dangerous mission. The country was torn apart by armed conflicts and NGO workers were often targeted by rival militant groups.

Denis Gouzerh, the head of the volunteer team on the Somalia mission who became close friends with Marie-Jose, thus remembers the hardships they experienced in this African country: “In June of 1997, thanks to DWB, a hospital was opened in Baidoa, which had been closed due to the lack of medical personnel caused by security problems: the doctors were simply unable to perform their duties as required.

But then, one of our association’s doctors, Ricardo, tragically lost his life at this newly opened hospital. He became the victim of a cowardly attack by the rebel group that controlled the city.

Just like with every project, we insistently asked the military authorities (the legitimate ones or just those with de facto power) to allow us to work at designated venues. But the agreement that gave us the right to help people who became hostages of the conflict wasn’t honored. The murder of our colleague was something completely unacceptable, so we decided to terminate the mission in Somalia.”

This crime deeply shocked Marie-Jose, but it remained difficult for her to leave the people she cared so much for behind. She believed it completely unjustified to punish innocent civilians who “were completely helpless and bore no responsibility for the atrocities committed by rebels” in such a way.

Over the three decades she spent with Doctors Without Borders, Marie-Jose has worked alongside some truly inspiring people, enthusiasts and humanitarians. When describing the organization’s spirit, she chooses four words: utopia, protest, independence and professionalism.