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A Doctor's Journey to the Calais Jungle

We looked around - so many tents, where to begin? So I crawled inside filthy, damp tents to examine a tiny coughing baby, a sobbing three-year-old little girl who had been crying in pain for two days, a 15 month old with profuse diarrhoea, a young mother with severe toothache, a man with abdominal pain lying huddled under grubby blankets...

Dr Bryony Corbyn and me at the Calais camp

A few weeks ago my cousin - Dr Bryony Corbyn, a psychiatric doctor - visited the refugee camp at Calais and found out that there is not enough medical provision for the refugees there and none at all at the Dunkirk camp. This means that there are over 7,000 men, women and children who have little or no access to medical care. Most of them are exhausted, malnourished and many have a wide range of medical problems. Some are severely ill or injured. All are deeply traumatised by the life they have fled from, the horror of their journey and the desperate conditions they now survive in.

Over the next few days I could not stop thinking about these people and their lack of basic medical aid so I decided to join her and her family on their next trip to the Calais camp.

We travelled to Calais on the Eurotunnel and drove past several enormous barbed wire fences to a huge warehouse where many of the donations for the refugees are sorted. There my cousin and I, along with another doctor and four final year medical students, assembled a makeshift set of medical kits from shelves filled with a random selection of supplies.

We packed everything into large rucksacks and drove to the camp at Dunkirk. Sleeting rain and driving winds. We put on thermals, waterproofs, wellies, high visibility vests and walked into the camp.

A sea of mud, ankle deep, hundreds of tents being buffeted by the strong winds - many destroyed and lying in the foul-smelling mire. Grim-faced men, crying toddlers, everything wet and sodden. Tents hunkered down between trees, desperate people seeking shelter from the howling wind and freezing rain.

A small section of the Dunkirk camp

We looked around - so many tents, where to begin? A volunteer from Lancaster asked us to go to the tents with babies and young children first. So I crawled inside filthy, damp tents to examine a tiny coughing baby, a sobbing three-year-old little girl who had been crying in pain for two days, a 15 month old with profuse diarrhoea, a young mother with severe toothache, a man with abdominal pain lying huddled under grubby blankets. As we went around the camp, sliding in the mud, trying to protect our medical kits from the rain, we were stopped wherever we went by people asking us to examine their throats, teeth, eyes or chests. So we stood there, in the mud and the rain and we did our best to assess and treat. Called out to passers by to help with translating. Handed out paracetamol, ibuprofen, rehydration sachets, Strepsils, dressings applied to wounds and whatever else could be done. Smiles and thanks from everyone despite their appalling conditions.

Overnight a devastating fire broke out in the Calais camp - apparently started by a candle. Severe burns, a badly injured man had to be carried by other refugees to an ambulance outside the camp. Many tents destroyed, 250 people including several families with small children and babies rendered completely homeless in the pouring rain.

On Monday we worked in the Calais camp - the Jungle. Thousands of tents as far as the eye could see, overflowing portable toilets, burst water pipes creating muddy lakes, cooking smells mixed with the stench of waste and sewage.

We went to the camp medical centre - three small caravans stocked with limited medical supplies. Surrounding these caravans was ankle deep water, mud and waste that the fast-growing queue of refugees had to stand in while they waited to be seen.

The Calais camp Medical Centre

Over the next hours our skills and experience were stretched to their limits. Trying to assess and treat so many ill people with such limited facilities. No antibiotics, no effective medication to treat the serious infections and illnesses that we saw, no translator other than fellow refugees who spoke broken English, no access to running water. It was the hardest, most challenging experience of my life. Leaving the camp to catch our train home was almost harder still, we just could not get to the end of the ever growing queue of sick people desperate to see a doctor.

We could not do enough.

More information:

Since our return many people have been asking how they can help. Volunteers or donations are always needed and to find out more have a look at the Facebook group here.

If you are a doctor, nurse, midwife, dentist, paramedic or other healthcare professional and would consider volunteering then please join the Facebook group: Refugee Support First Aid & Care Team - they are the main organisers of volunteer medical aid at the camps.

If you would like to donate or raise money then please see below a list of small volunteer groups and larger charities that are supporting the refugees. The first one in the list is the volunteer medical care group that I was linked with. Any money donated to any of them will make a difference. Money raised will be used to replenish medical supplies, maintain the medical facilities and cover vital costs to help sustain this service. Caravans for Calais Project has been set up to send over mobile support units including caravans and trailer tents to refugee camps. These can be used for medical centres, treatment points, nurse stations, antenatal units, accommodation for refugees and whatever else is needed. Calais medics work out of 3 of their caravans in the Jungle.

Us humans: If you are looking for a way to help those caught up in this crisis, you can buy Christmas gift cards, made by independent designers living in London. Each card will help purchase a high-quality winter essential for a person in need.

Larger charities working with refugees include:

Medecins Sans Frontieres -

Thank you.

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