John Bradshaw

'The team kept me motivated, along with the fact that these tasks just had to be done in order for the medical programs to run.'


What is your professional background? What did you do before joining MSF?

I worked as a shop foreman and assistant to the owner of a private commercial fleet maintenance company. Prior to that, I was the fleet manager for a private ambulance service. Also, I worked as an EMT and an auto electrician in previous lives. My father worked in Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Italy when I was young, so I did quite a bit of moving around. I also had the opportunity to work in construction in China and Pakistan.

What was it that attracted you to MSF specifically?

After the last earthquake in Pakistan, I was watching a news clip about MSF’s intervention and its problem getting up a road to the disaster area. I had contacts in Pakistan and had this inner dialogue that I could be helping MSF build roads. I went to MSF’s website and saw that they recruited people with my skill set, so I applied.

How soon did you get out to the field?

After a rigorous interview process, I was sent to a pre-departure logistics training (PPDL) for 10 days*. Three days later, I was proposed an assignment to depart immediately. I left my job that day at lunch time and was on a plane within 12 hours to New York for a briefing. I arrived in Homa Bay, Kenya, two days later.

What tasks were under your purview?

As the general logistician in this HIV project in Homa Bay, I oversaw the project’s daily needs, some of which were general building maintenance, renovation of the hospital, and installation of generators and electrical backup systems. The non glamorous day-to-day responsibilities included making sure there was electricity, food, water, ballpoint pens, and that the toilet wasn’t blocked up. However, I did get to assist the logistician in charge of construction who set up the new culture lab and built a new pharmacy.

How different was the work in the start-up fistula project in Nigeria?

When the team arrived, we knew what houses we were staying in, but we couldn’t live in them because there was no power or water. We did a lot of frantic shopping, building, and cleaning. In the hospital, we set up an inflatable operating theater tent and converted a roofless room into a sterilization area. We also built a pharmacy and a warehouse.

As a logistician, there are very technical aspects of your work; were there instances where you did not know how to do something? How did you manage?

I called my approach ‘McGyver-ish’ because we did everything with what we could find at hand, improvising a lot because we didn’t have the necessary tools and sometimes the experience. I taught myself three-phase wiring in 220 volts by reading the MSF field guides and consulting with people.

You had an unusual job in Malawi as a “flying mechanic”. Describe what you did.

Because of my background working with fleets, I was sent to assess MSF’s vehicle needs, train the mechanic, set up a workshop, and stock it. MSF had a 12-car fleet. I stayed four months longer because the mechanic left, so I had to recruit another one and, in the meantime, did the maintenance and managed the inventory. Also, I stepped in for the logistician who left the program early, so this meant that during the evening I was pumping water into the house tanks and dealing with the generator at night.

What held your endurance together on these assignments?

The team kept me motivated, along with the fact that these tasks just had to be done in order for the medical programs to run.

What character traits helped you work through the many field challenges?

I practiced the art of patience, empathy, and understanding. I tried to find the best balance between what I needed to get the job done and what my team could do. I also learned to find ways to understand the special needs of the medical team and, in turn, help them see what could actually be achieved.

What perspective do you feel you’ve gained from working in resource-poor settings?

I have a higher respect for hand-tools and came to appreciate craftsmanship, creativity, and ingenuity. A good craftsman can make anything with nothing.

Describe the dynamics of team life.

Team life meant exactly that—you lived and worked together. In this intertwining microcosm, you knew pretty much what’s going on with everyone. We relied on each other because we had no choice, so you shared the challenges and the joys together.

What was the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

I felt rewarded when I taught national staff—some of whom can’t speak a word of English—a new task, and then seeing them perfect the skill at the next try without instruction. Their smiles showed how happy they were about their accomplishment.

What lessons did you learn that you would like to impart to new colleagues?

Ask advice from the national staff, because the way you normally do things may not necessarily apply to the local conditions or situations. Work on people skills and patience, because you will be supervising staff from different cultures and languages, and skill levels from low to high.

What suggestions would you have for a mechanic or logistician who is considering applying to MSF to go in the field?

Get practical experience with generators, water pumps, refrigerators, cars, radios, electricity, etc. before you go on assignment.

* MSF’s pre-departure logistics courses are not available in every case.