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Interview with John Beavis – The Disaster Surgeon

You seem to have a deep, inbuilt sense that it isn't just the immediate on-the-ground response that is important to successful disaster relief, but the right infrastructure is also key. Can you recall a particular moment or situation when this first became obvious to you, or when it was especially pertinent?

I think it became very obvious in Bosnia. There was a negative aspect to the aid to Bosnia in that people would turn up, do their week or fortnight there and never go back again.

What some refer to as the ‘war tourists’?

Yeah, it’s a nasty term to use, but there were people who fitted into that category. And then there are also those who just don’t realise that when you set something up for these poor people who are in these situations of adversity that cannot be described, only witnessed, that they come to rely on you very quickly not just for your skills but probably more for your jokes, bringing sweets in for the kids, showing them that they’re not forgotten and giving the truth as they see it to the outside world. That led to doing something I’m actually very reluctant to do, appearing on radio, going on television, writing letters to newspapers, (particularly The Guardian) about it. We felt that we had that point to make for them. We were their ambassadors, not in a political sense, but in a sense that these were people who were suffering massively through no fault of their own and they deserved the rest of the world to do what they could, to get involved and stop it from happening again. They weren’t asking for military assistance, but aid was essential as was the control of aid.

Then as the years went by in Bosnia, I realised we had to think beyond the war, and that meant we couldn’t just pack up and go and we continued in a big way for many years, actually taking people out of Bosnia to train, to help them with research for their work. My Hunterian Professorship lecture was based entirely on medicine in a modern besieged city, Sarajevo, describing the whole range of problems that existed and how we could perhaps help. So it happened in Bosnia and of course it has stayed with us since. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for our work in Pakistan or Gaza.

You seem to very much connect with the human side of these tragedies, which isn’t something you always associate with a doctor or a surgeon.

Well I think if medicine is practiced without total consideration to the needs of the patient or the patient’s relatives, then you fail and where I have failed in medicine, it’s because I didn’t put the patient 100% first, just the bit of them I was working on. Most of what I’ve dealt with in my career has revolved around a specific need that had to be attended to, but surrounding that need was always a human being. And when you come to things such as chronic pain, you’re into the way the brain works, psychology and everything else. There’s a difference between falling down the stairs and being seen at a top clinic in London to being shelled and bombed for years. You might have lost relatives, you might be nutritionally deprived, and you probably spend your day worried sick about the survival of you and your children. You can’t work with people like that without looking at the patient as a whole.

Our understanding and usage of the word 'disaster' is probably very different to yours, but can you think of any tangible advice or insight based on your own experiences that can be applied to running a small business in difficult times?

Choose what is needed. Think of those who need it and stick at it. In times of adversity you can only speculate with the facts so much. You must have something to offer that is relevant.

You’ve been quoted saying life is a maze rather than a straight road, and I think that could probably be relevant advice as well?

I’m a bit of a Shakespeare buff, although I don’t really know any and I’m reading a good book at the moment by Lawrence Olivier’s son on Henry V and the portrayal of leadership. It’s a very interesting book looking at how a leader should be, how they should behave and what their qualities should be.

(Inspirational Leadership: A timeless lesson for leaders from Shakespeare’s Henry V, by Richard Olivier is the book referred to.)

With one of your new projects focused on Syria amongst others, do you have any concerns about this particular conflict and where will you be looking to have the most impact?

At the moment what’s happening is that our technical advisor is going out there with a guy from Pakistan who we worked very closely with there. They are going to establish the need for ways of treating the people who are in refugee camps there. We may also cross the border and treat people there and the next big project we want to get going is to raise funds for that, but we’ve already put up money for the initial investigation and a project that will last about six months, just to see if it can work.

And that’s another story about business, because it is business you see. You’re setting up a project which you’re going to sell to people, you must therefore do your research, you must assess your cliental, you must assess the costs and you must adhere as rigidly as you are able to the plan whilst being able to change it as a response to change in circumstances, and keep within budget! And if it does work initially, stick at it with the same principles.

Are there places you've yet been unable to reach or somewhere you wished the world focused on more? Basically, any regrets?

I regret that we weren’t a big enough organisation to leave a functioning unit in Northern Pakistan/Afghan border, because I was going there all the time. I made some 30 trips to the area but in the end, you can’t keep on doing that. A part of the organisation is that you want people to be able to pick up the ball and run with it themselves, it’s something paternalistic and something we’re doing in Gaza in a big way. We certainly did it in Pakistan. One of the biggest projects we did was build a village after the earthquake. For them it was like winning the lottery though because previously, money like that had gone straight to the landlords, so I wasn’t popular with them. But it allowed the craftsman, the plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth to be totally independent for the first time in a generation. And that’s what we should be leaving behind, but on a much larger scale. Not giving things so they become aid dependent, but giving ideas, inspiration and friendship.

The idea of long term support really is key isn’t it?

It really is key, but it’s a hard sell. People find it boring, but it’s what life is about.

Who would you say was the person who has most influenced you and how have they done so?

I suppose the greatest influences we’ve had are the people who’ve joined as trustees. These people are a massive influence, and the other person is my wife. We met at 17 and all the way through my life, it’s always been ‘yes’. She’s supported me. She thinks I’m completely nuts and she’s absolutely right, but it is what we both believe in. What is the worst thing you have had to face?

The death of children en masse. I identify with them. I’m a grandfather. It’s so bloody unnecessary. None of it need happen and it’s all rotten, no matter what anyone says. Oscar Wilde summed it up when he said “people always find war attractive until they realise it’s basically disgusting”.

If you hadn't taken this incredible vocation, what would you have liked to have done instead?

I’d like to have been a great teacher. A really great teacher. Inspirational like some of the guys I knew, who I still think about to this day and how much I owe them.

I’d like to thank John for his time and for speaking with me. If you’d like to find out more about John and the IDEALS charity, or contribute to their work please visit where you can make a donation towards his important work.

Wed 15 Oct 2014