Published in the April 2013 issue of Today’s Hospitalist
BY THE TIME SHE WAS 12, Navneet Bhullar, MD, MSC, knew she wanted to be a doctor. But a piece in Reader’s Digest showed her just how exciting a physician’s life could be.
“The article was on a woman MSF surgeon who was risking her own life for patients in the civil war in Lebanon,” says Dr. Bhullar, referring to Medecins Sans Frontieres, an organization more commonly known here as Doctors Without Borders. “That’s what made me want to do this work.”
Fast forward a few decades and Dr. Bhullar, who’s worked in the field with MSF since 2007, is now on its board of directors. She’s worked with both Hmong and Congolese refugees and has coordinated a filariasis eradication campaign in Indonesia.
In 2011, Dr. Bhullar spent six months in Uzbekistan on a project targeting multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a long-term clinical and research interest of hers. A hospitalist based in Philadelphia, she recently completed a masters in tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
She hasn’t run into the kind of excitement conveyed in that first Reader’s Digest article; even within MSF, harrowing war-zone assignments are largely reserved for surgeons and anesthesiologists. Right now in Syria, she points out, MSF surgeons are operating in makeshift shelters and, until very recently, caves because the Syrian army is shelling hospitals.
But while MSF is known for parachuting into dangerous situations, the organization also maintains many long-term projects and some operational research. According to Dr. Bhullar, those offer excellent opportunities for internists and hospitalists to get involved.
She also categorically denies being more altruistic than any of her hospitalist colleagues.
“I think what prevents people from doing this kind of work is fear of change or fear of other cultures,” says Dr. Bhullar. “I think being an immigrant is in part what stopped me from being afraid of change.” She also credits growing up in India with a father in the Indian army and having attended as many as six different schools before college.
After an assignment abroad, Dr. Bhullar says she has no trouble transitioning back to practicing medicine in the U.S. She thinks her MSF experiences have made her more tolerant, for instance, with noncompliant patients here at home.
“It’s given me a broader perspective, and things don’t upset me like they did before,” Dr. Bhullar says. She also relays her experiences in the Third World to some of her inpatients.
“When they’re complaining about an MRI that’s delayed, I’ll tell them about kids walking 10 kilometers to find drinking water,” she explains. “It helps everyone ease up.”