New exhibit shows courage of Canadian doctors in conflict zones

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Three Canadian doctors who have risked their lives to help people in conflict zones around the world are featured in a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR).

Canadian Doctors in the Field tells the stories of Dr. Norman Bethune, Dr. Lucille Teasdale Corti and Dr. Samantha Nutt, using images and artifacts – including their personal items and medical devices. The exhibit was developed by the CMHR as a Canada 150 project, helping show the important work of Canadians to defend human rights. It will be on display until August 2018.

Bethune was convinced that recovery from illness should not be related to social class, which led him to identify as a communist. He joined the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, where he organized one of the world's first mobile blood transfusion services. Bethune later travelled to China where he served as a surgeon for Chinese communists fighting the Japanese. While performing a surgery in 1939, he contracted blood poisoning which led to his death.

Bethune invented a number of surgical implements and devices to aid his work. In China, he designed a "Marco Polo bridge" to transfer medical supplies on horseback. It also acted as a small operating table. A small‐scale reproduction of this innovative device is on display in the exhibit.

Teasdale Corti, one of Canada's first female surgeons, believed people should have access to medical care regardless of their circumstances. In the early 1960s, she went to Lacor, Uganda to work in a small clinic that treated hundreds of patients a day. She and her husband eventually transformed it into a hospital complex and training centre that thrives to this day. During decades of civil conflict that wracked Uganda, armed factions stole drugs and kidnapped medical staff. Teasdale Corti later contracted HIV while performing surgery, but continued working for 10 years before succumbing in 1996. 

The exhibit includes various surgical instruments used by Teasdale Corti, on loan from the hospital in Uganda. Her daughter, Dr. Dominque Corti – born in Uganda and based in Italy – continues her mother's work. She is active with the Montreal‐based Teasdale‐Corti Foundation and its sister foundation in Italy, both established to ensure the continuity of healthcare, training and growth of the Lacor hospital.

Nutt has worked in conflict zones around the world since 1995, primarily overseeing long‐term programming geared towards empowerment of women and children as they recover from the horrors of war. This work puts her safety at risk: she has been physically threatened and caught in gun fights between warring militias. Armed conflict has also claimed the lives of her friends and colleagues. Nutt's experiences of war and its effects on children in particular, motivated her to found War Child Canada in 1999, an internationally recognized charity that works with war‐affected communities to help children get access to education, opportunity and justice.

The backpack she took to her first conflict‐zone assignment in Somalia in 1995 is displayed in the exhibit, along with her stethoscope and a bracelet that was always attached to it. She lives in Toronto.

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Maureen Fitzhenry