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Political no man’s land

Year: 1988
Setting: We, Lifou, New Caledonia
Position: Private general practitioner

On Nov. 18, six months after the killing of 19 Kanaks (the indiginous Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia) by the French special forces on the island of Ouvea, I open the first and only private medical practice of the Loyalty islands in We, capital of the island of Lifou. The total population is about 10,000 people, 99 percent of whom are Melanesians. In the first weeks, my life is threatened a few times by drunken pro-independence backers at various social events including a wedding. They accuse me of exploiting the islanders and resort to violence when I challenge their statements, pointing out that my medical services and all the medications are delivered for free to all of them. On the other hand, some anti-independence islanders criticize me for, in their view, helping the pro-independence movement by taking care of and treating its supporters.

My waiting room is like a scene from the American Civil War. Pro-independence patients sit on one side and anti-independence supporters stay as far as possible from them on the other side. Some know each other very well and even live in bordering houses and huts. The atmosphere can become quite heavy at times and I cannot help but wonder what would ensue if anyone broached a political topic. Fortunately as the weeks go by, the patients start talking to one another. Maybe my tireless reiteration that all patients are equal to me (exemplified by the care I provide) contributes to a more relaxed atmosphere under my roof. At any rate, the phenomenon is spilling over into other areas of the town and the people who started a dialogue while waiting for a consultation carry it on later in public places, such as the grocery store or the gas station (people usually come to the capital for a sweep of errands). In months of this snowballing effect, relationships are back to normal.

Lesson for the doctor: In some circumstances, the doctor’s office can become a forum for long-reaching societal changes, and his/her attitude can be the catalyst for reconciling enemies.

Yann Meunier, MD, is the health promotion manager for the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He formerly practiced medicine in developed and developing countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Each week, he will share some of his experiences with patients in remote corners of the world.

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