Deseret News, April 6, 2010
By Elizabeth Stuart
Dr. James Orbinski led an international, Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization. He risked his own life to save others by taking medical care to the world’s most dangerous war zones. He developed life-saving medication for sick, dying people in the world’s poorest countries.
But, Orbinski insists, he isn’t a hero.
“I am not an extraordinary person,” said the unassuming Canadian doctor. “I am an everyday person. I am a father of three children. … I do research. I teach. I do clinical work. I am just like you.”
Orbinski, the former president of Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization, gave lectures Tuesday at the University of Utah and the Little America Hotel. Established in France in 1971, Doctors Without Borders now serves 60 countries, providing medical care for people affected by armed conflict, neglect or natural disasters. Orbinski personally served in Peru, Somalia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Zaire.
At the Little America Hotel, before an audience of several hundred people, Orbinski described the personal experiences that prompted him to start a career in international humanitarian work. He urged others to find their own passion and find a way to use it to better the world.
“There’s never been a time in human history that we have been so fragile,” Orbinski said. “We have a fuel crisis. We have a food crisis. We are in the midst of a … financial crisis. And it’s not over yet.”
Orbinski first realized the need the world has for medical care as a 7-year-old boy, he said. He woke up in the middle of the night to find his brother having a seizure. His family was poor and couldn’t afford medical care. In desperation, his mother called a neighbor, a pediatric medical student, for help.
“I remember watching my brother lying in bed as the young doctor gave him a bath to bring down the fever,” Orbinski said. “I remember thinking, ‘There’s something wrong with this situation. My brother’s life depends on whether or not we have money.’ ”
Years later, Orbinski joined Doctors Without Borders. He started his career working at a juvenile detention center, hoping to become a psychologist.
“I needed to find something to fulfill me,” he said.
He found his passion in medical school. He made his first trip to Africa as a resident, studying pediatric HIV.
“I didn’t go to Africa as a development specialist,” he said. “I didn’t go as a humanitarian. I had no plans to change medicine in developing countries. I was just doing research, trying to answer my own curiosity.”
If people give themselves to their profession of choice, he said, “finding a place where your voice matters,” anyone can make a positive difference in the world.
During his time as president of Doctors Without Borders, from 1998 to 2001, Orbinski accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for the organization and launched a campaign advocating for the increased availability of life-saving medicine. As chairman of the program’s Neglected Disease Working Group from 2001 to 2004, he orchestrated the creation of a not-for-profit drug development company.
He has been working as an associate professor at the University of Toronto since 2003.
As a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, he founded Dignitas International, a non-governmental organization that researches and provides community-based care for AIDS patients in Africa. Dignitas International is now caring for more than 12,000 HIV-positive patients.