When the Unthinkable Happens: A Surgeon's Story from Congo


David Kuwayama, a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) surgeon, shares a particularly memorable experience from his time at MSF's hospital in Betou, Congo

About 2 o’clock in the morning I hear a knock on the door. It’s the night guard from our hospital. He tells me there is a pregnant woman in trouble, and I’m needed at the hospital right away.

It’s monsoon season in Congo and we’re driving through a huge rainstorm. As soon as we arrive, I see the woman in obvious distress. I talk to the midwife, and realize that without an immediate C-section, both the patient and her baby are going to die.

The anesthetist places a spinal anesthesia and lays the patient down. I scrub my hands and prep her belly. We move quickly, time is critical. I pick up the scalpel and make the first incision in her skin when, suddenly, the unthinkable happens—the lights go out. It’s pitch black in the windowless operating room. I wait, for what feels like an eternity, but the power doesn’t come back on.

Here I stand, two lives in front of me. All I can hear is the rain on the roof and my own heartbeat pounding in my ears. I don’t know what to do next; I feel utterly helpless.

Then, from the dark void, a light appears at the head of the bed. It’s the anesthetist, who has opened up a laryngoscope (a device we use to intubate people)—he is now holding it over the patient to light my way.

Next, the operating room nurse turns on a cell phone and holds it over the patient. I can almost see well enough to continue the operation. More hospital staff file into the operating room, carrying lit cell phones. Within a few minutes, there are six cell phones and a laryngoscope blade providing enough light for me to keep going.

Luckily, the woman and her baby survived. Later, in the recovery ward, I saw them, mother holding child peacefully, and I felt suddenly overcome by the emotional gravity of what had occurred. For me, this experience symbolizes what MSF is all about. Together as a group, as a team, and as an organization, we are a beam of light shining in the darkness for those in their darkest hours.