What exactly do you do as a doctor in your missions?
I do the first and emergency care. I resuscitate, quiet bleeding, connect and stabilize the patients. The necessary operations then make my colleagues. And I'm triaging the sick.
Simply put, I decide, who else is there to help and who is not? This is especially important if many injured people come at a time during the war. So I decide who is treated first.
Lord of life and death. How do you feel?
I work then. One has to do that, according to clear criteria. This is a professional classification that is necessary. There is no point in treating a seriously injured dying man and leaving another to wait for better chances of bleeding to death.
They have been confronted with tremendous misery and the consequences of brutal violence. What is the image of man in the face of this murderous potential of one's own species?
In some situations it was desperate. But I have also met wonderful people all over the world. I still believe in the good in all of us to this day. Yes, many of us can become beasts. War is awful. But mostly wars are consequences of political failure. Also our failure as a western world. That often makes me angry.
Can you give an example?
The current conditions in Libya. First, the dictator was eliminated with Western help, leaving the arms-starving land to himself and the warlords. Now there are tortured refugees who have made their way to Europe. And we allow that. That is shameful.
Whenever you return home, you will experience the blatant contrast between the medical supply in Germany and the low standards in your areas of application. How do you deal with that?
I found that especially after my first missions difficult and stressful. I saw people die from diarrhea and actually treatable infections. The gap is crazy. Outside of Europe, it often lacks the most basic things to help people. And then you come home and experience how dying, old people with high-consuming medicine for hundreds of thousands of euros artificially kept alive. A bizarre contrast.
And a tricky topic.
Absolute. We are not allowed to let anyone die like that. Absolutely clear. But we must discuss how long the suffering of the dying person should be technically prolonged.
But who should decide that in the end?
Best of all the patients themselves. And the next of kin. If possible, if they are healthy and clear in the head. I can only advise everyone to make the most explicit and individualized living will. That helps us doctors too. The medicine here in the west can do a lot. And that is often a blessing. But everyone should decide for themselves what should happen to him or her at the end of life.
But how do you deal with this elementary gap between here and there?
I do not compare anymore. That would make me crazy otherwise. This gap applies to every area of human life. I'll take it the way it is and do whatever is necessary and possible.
Have you ever been seriously endangered in action?
A few times it was tricky. I particularly remember a situation in Yemen. We provided severely injured victims of a shootout. They were brought by the minute. At some point the shock room was overcrowded. And suddenly we heard shots in the hospital. Close to us. They came closer and closer. I had to decide in seconds whether to continue or leave the room.
What did you do?
We looked for protection in an adjoining room and waited for the situation to clear up.
What feelings did you have in this moment?
I felt powerless and deeply regretting. I am a doctor. I want to help. But there is a clear rule with us: self-assurance goes before. It also makes no sense if we are shot and the hospital is without doctors, we have to see it professionally. After the event, we then continued working.
Does something like that happen more often?
Luckily not. We are rarely attacked directly. The parties to the conflict respect us as neutral helpers. That employees die or are injured by us is really rare.
Sometimes nature is your opponent. Two months after the tsunami disaster in December 2004, you were in Indonesia.
That was the worst destruction I've ever seen in my life. An inferno! And then the thousands of injuries. We worked in the restless province of Aceh. I was particularly moved by the fact that people had no words for their emotional suffering, their traumas.
You did not know that you are traumatized?
Exactly. We then trained local teams who went to the marketplaces and used role-playing games to show how depressed people behave. And people stopped, looked and shouted, "Just like my mother." "That's my brother." Or: "That's how I feel." Then we told them that this is a disease that can be treated.
And then you also experienced a heavy earthquake in the already devastated region …
It was just before midnight when it started. We ran out of the house and the world around us moved. Everything wavered. It was really scary. Like in a catastrophe movie. We were shocked, but the locals completely lost their composure.
Because they thought that the horror repeats itself?
Yes, we experience time and again that people can somehow handle a single disaster. But if the event repeats at short notice, then people just can not do it anymore. Then all the dams break. The panic around us was depressing.
Earthquakes, shootings, dead and seriously injured – did not you sometimes think, "What am I doing here?" It's enough now, I'm going home. "
I was often frustrated and horrified, but this thought did not come to me. I had taken on a job as a doctor, and that was what had to be done. And there were always wonderful moments, and then I perceive them all the more strongly: people we were able to save, helpfulness, the tremendous gratitude of the patients and – last but not least – the nature experiences. That has always raised me up.
In August 2012, you received a bizarre email: "We would like to send Tankred to Syria to install an operating room in a cave."
I thought: That sounds a bit crazy, but also exciting. That was my tenth assignment.
What did the work in the cave operation look like?
Once we pulled in the tarpaulins and placed sunbeds and supplies inside, we set up an inflatable tent where we could operate under sterile conditions.
Who did you treat?
Everyone who was brought. We do not differentiate there. There is only one rule: Patients are not allowed to carry weapons, and if possible soldiers should come to us without a uniform.
Override the chapter in your book on Sierra Leone, "Humanity as the last medicine." What do you mean by that?
Ebola had broken out there. A tremendously deadly disease. That was shocking. Usually, patients we treat have a real chance of survival. Not here. I have never seen so many people die in any mission.
Their ethical approach always starts from the other, from the weakest. Are you a religious person?
Not that one. Helpfulness does not have to be justified religiously. I appreciate the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He says: "The need of the other is the call for me to do something." And so I want to act too. Not uninterrupted, but basically. I'm sure we humans need each other.
You are married since 2011. Your wife once wrote you the words: "I hope you are close to the trouble, but far from the bombs, I ask you very much not to be too brave – what you do is remarkable enough, rather be cowardly for me!" Did you stick to it?
That was when I was in Syria. She had a card with this text hidden in her luggage. That touched me a lot. My wife is also a doctor. She knew who she was getting into. But I am careful. I adhere to the safety rules. I really enjoy living.
How long are you going to work for Doctors Without Borders?
There is no end in sight.
Inspiration: Tankred Stöbe: "Courage and humanity as a doctor worldwide in borderline situations", Fischer, 192 S., 14,99 Euro