faculty & experts
22 November 2021

A Medical Career Turned Anthropological

Vinh-Kim Nguyen is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology as well as Co-director of the Global Health Centre. He recently received an honorary award from the French Red Cross Foundation for his "entire research journey devoted to the analysis of humanitarian aid, development and international public health, as well as its commitment to the rights and access to treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS". Here, he discusses his path from doctor to anthropologist. 

Why did you decide to study medical anthropology after having studied and practiced medicine?

Before studying medicine, I really fell in love with philosophy and social theory, which really helped me understand the world, and that was a liberating feeling. Once I started practicing, I realised that in order to understand my patients, I needed to understand the world better, so it seemed like a natural fit. 

What is one of the most memorable experiences of your career, notably in the humanitarian sector?

During my time with Médecins sans frontières, I remember two events. The first was a mass casualty event. I was working in Northern Yemen and my superior woke me up in the middle of the night to say that there had been a bombing. So, we went to the hospital. It felt strange because I was half-asleep, so there was a physiological aspect to it. The victims were brought in and I remember some were pretty badly off. I just remember the despair of an older fellow because he realised his daughter would lose her arm. 

The second event was a larger mass casualty event in the same place, a traffic accident. A truck had overturned, one of those trucks in which 20-30 people were quite cramped. About 25 victims came in at the same time and as you can imagine it was pretty chaotic. I was left in charge to coordinate everything. There was a room with people yelling and screaming but one patient was really crying out above it all. I went to examine him and I realised that he had nothing, he was just traumatised. But he was so traumatised that it was really upsetting everyone. I took him to a quieter room with patients who had minor injuries. It really encapsulated something: the impact of psychological wounds. 

We always think of bombings and legs and amputations and blood, but it’s the psychological wounds and the scars that are almost impossible to treat. So, I have gradually become more drawn to the question of how we can treat psychological trauma, distress, what psychiatrists call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But I think that term does not capture everything, there is kind of a social trauma as well. 

Did that experience, or others, aliment your research? Towards what objective(s)?

We have just started a project at the Institute in collaboration with the hospital and involving a number of our graduate students. This project involves, amongst other things, trying to describe how migrants in a number of countries, but in Geneva specifically, experience and manage psychological distress. 

Another project that predates the stories I mentioned above examines the relationship between war and environmental disruption, and antibiotic resistance. Wars cause environmental disruption, which liberates a lot of heavy metals and we have some good evidence that they are an important driver of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.