‘There’s an old women on the floor of the tent over there and I think she’s dead’, I said, trying to steady my voice and relay my message coherently. ‘Well if she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’ ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I mean I’m not sure if she’s dead or not, she’s either dead or really ill. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know what she is but I think you should come.’ The doctor inhaled slowly, taking in the line of mothers clutching coughing children desperate to get his attention. ‘If you think it’s important, I’ll come.’
It wasn’t the first time I felt I was playing god with precious resources in Idomeni. I’d found myself deciding on the night shift which family got the last tent, and – after days of torrential rain – which man the last pair of shoes. Fewer than 50 doctors served the needs of 14,000 refugees: calling a medic to an emergency meant taking them away from another patient.
The camp on the Greece-Macedonia border was set up to provide refugees heading north with basic aid: water, jam sandwiches and a communal tent for shelter. Shortly after I arrived they closed the border, yet people kept coming and the camp continued to swell.
‘If she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’
The old woman had the face of an old master painting – like the wizened figure in Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes but without the compelling expression. Unsure of whether my medical companion was a fan of the arts, I kept this thought to myself, adding only ‘She’s lying on the floor of a crammed tent with kids jumping and shouting around her.’ The doctor took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and set an unbearably slow pace as we dodged children playing along the only path that wasn’t up to their knees in mud. I resisted the temptation to hurry him on.
His attitude seemed callous at first. I was new to aid work, it was only my second time in a refugee camp. Only later did I learn that you need to take care of yourself first, before you can help others. My medic had been closeted in a small tent for hours treating case after case with limited supplies.
The old woman was sitting upright when we got there. I found myself in the singular position of being slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t dead after all, almost wishing that she might lie down again to justify my urgency. The medic gave me a sideways glance; he didn’t mind, I’d allowed him to snatch 10 minutes of relative peace.
I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman. Hurrying towards another emergency I didn’t give her a second thought.