Michael Kühnel is a medical doctor who has volunteered for the Austrian Red Cross as a disaster relief assistant for almost two decades. He was in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005, Haiti in 2011, and was the only Austrian doctor working in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Last November at AidEx in Brussels, 'Dr Mike' was awarded the 2017 Humanitarian Hero Award. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the challenges of volunteering in such risky environments, and why not doing the job simply isn’t an option.
How has life been since winning the award – has it sunk in yet?
I am still overwhelmed. When the Austrian Red Cross asked if they could nominate me I did not even think I would be shortlisted. Winning this prize has humbled me and makes me think about all of the volunteers I met during my missions - people who deserve this prize even more than I do. It is difficult to compare all of the nominees. Everybody’s doing great work; being the founder of an NGO or working with orphans is just as important as being on missions with the Red Cross. Nevertheless, I am very proud and grateful to AidEx, the Red Cross and everybody who voted for me.
What was everyone’s reaction back in Austria?
The Austrian Red Cross was very proud of me winning this award. Last week I was honoured to be interviewed on an Austrian television show, where I spoke about my work and what it was like being the AidEx 2017 Humanitarian Hero Award winner, which was viewed by 200,000 people.
17 years is a long time to volunteer. What motivated you to be a volunteer for the Austrian Red Cross?
By the age of 13 I had decided I wanted to become a medical doctor. After a friend of mine worked with the Red Cross in 1999 in Shkodra, I too wanted to do the same. I have always believed in helping people in need, especially where nobody else wants to go. My first mission was to Banda Aceh after the Tsunami which was a life-changing experience.
What attracted you to work in the humanitarian sector?
I am very privileged being born in Austria, having the opportunity to go to university and becoming a medical doctor. I always wanted to give something back to people in need. If I, with a medical background would not want to help - then who should do the work?
What has been your toughest experience to date?
I think my toughest experience was in Idomeni 2016. Our base camp was in Thessaloniki which was approximately 60 km south of the main camp. During my shift I was working with desperate and sick people. At the end of the day we went to Thessaloniki and had dinner in a wonderful city. This experience of two polar opposite situations in the same area made it really, really difficult for me to work. I couldn’t believe that this camp was not somewhere in a conflict area, but in the middle of the European Community. For me, this has been a sign of European political failure.
The same thing happened to me aboard of the Responder. Reading the newspapers that another 50 people died in the Mediterranean Sea seems to be normal nowadays for many people. But if you have to resuscitate a young man while another 150 people are being brought to your ship, this makes a difference. To cope with all of the media around the dead is not easy.
Where does your resilience and fearlessness come from? Were you born with it? Do you ever get scared of losing your own life to help others?
From my point of view resilience comes with self-confidence. I have always been an optimist and for me the sentence “it is not possible”, is one I very rarely use. I develop and improve my skills during every mission.
Of course you also need coping strategies, which is why writing blogs is very important to me. I do this to inform people back in Austria of what is going on, but it also became a way of calming down and getting over what I have seen. People seem to like my blogs. The second big coping strategy is making music. Some years ago I started to play the ukulele, which is very small and can be easily taken on a mission. Making music on my own is a very important thing to get a little bit of distance from the day’s work.
In every mission I have respect for the mission’s goal. You must not have fear. Having fear means you are working in the wrong place. Having said this, my personal no-go area of work would be in a conflict zone. Ebola is a danger which for me can be calculated. Being in a conflict zone and getting possibly shot or hit by a bomb however, is something I cannot calculate and I cannot deal with that.
What would you tell anyone wanting to help in the field, but who is scared of the risks involved?
If you want to work in the field you have to be absolutely certain about doing it. Being in the field forces you to face so many new and unique experiences and you always need to know what to do. There are so many things that are important; on the one hand you have to be a team player and work well in a group, and other times you must be able to work alone and lead people. You also have to make decisions at the same time as taking commands.
If you want to work in the field with an NGO, do your research. It does not necessarily have to be with a big organisation, you just have to be sure you really want to do this. Finally, if you want to do field work, you need to have stability at home because you will need your family’s support when you return home.
In your opinion what is the biggest challenge doctors are facing in the humanitarian field?
Working in a hospital compared to working in the field can be completely different. In the field you have a lack of drugs, medical staff and often, a completely different level of hygiene. So, as in any other sector, you have to be able to adapt to fast moving situations. You should be resistant to stress and able to take breaks. Forgetting to stop to work can easily over-exhaust you.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the humanitarian field today?
Reflecting on the past year, it seems the biggest challenge is changing political systems around the world. Humanity seems to be diminishing and what’s worse, aid workers are being accused of detrimental things like being human traffickers, or like during the Ebola crisis people were afraid of workers bringing the disease back into their home countries. More and more politicians are playing with people’s fears and on social media platforms like Facebook, more and more hate is being spread. I am astonished and a little bit afraid of this trend.
The Humanitarian Hero Award takes places every year at AidEx in Brussels. To read more about this year's competition, see here.