War Zone Doctor
JILL SEAMAN has spent decades exploring the most effective way to bring modern medicine to the beleaguered people of South Sudan. In 1989 she arrived in the midst of one of the worst epidemics to hit Africa—from a tropical disease called kala-azar—and a brutal civil war. Today the war is over, South Sudan has declared independence, and the epidemic has subsided, but violence, disease, and perhaps worst of all, fear, still plague the region that has become Seaman’s second home.
What were things like when you arrived?
More than half of the population in the region was already dead. You’d walk through villages where nobody was alive. You would see the ashes from a fire. You might walk over bones. But there was nobody. It was silent and eerie and devastating.
You had to fight the cause of all this death. Can you describe the enemy?
Kala-azar is transmitted by the bite of a sand fly and gives you fever, wasting, a big spleen. After many weeks you will die. In 1989, when I came into South Sudan with Doctors Without Borders, there were no people treating patients in the bush. And so research was needed to give high-tech treatment and to do high-tech diagnostics out of a mud hut. Most of our research was aimed at that, and it continues to be that way today.
But over the past 20 years, you’ve eliminated the disease?
Well, no. It’s hard to compare the epidemic to now, because now there is health care. But just in the past three years we’ve had another outbreak. This past year we treated 2,500 people. And that’s a huge number of patients.
Your clinic’s been bombed and burned. But you insist you’re not a risk taker.
I’m not. I’m serious. I have a passion for health care and for Sudan. I can tell you lots of things that have happened that are scary, like a massacre in a town just north of us that killed maybe 200 people in a couple of hours. They just shot at people, at women washing their clothes. But that has nothing to do with why I’m here.
But you are there. And it is risky, no?
The thing is, it’s not that I’m taking risks. Everybody’s taking risks. Life is a risk. Everybody who lives there, they know that life could be gone in an hour. And yet they live. And they are happy. And I get to touch millions of people and hopefully help them. How could I be more lucky?