James Maskalyk Interview:

Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine


James Maskalyk is an emergency-room physician, member of Medecins Sans Frontières, and author of Life on the Ground Floor. In this moving interview, James Maskalyk spoke with us about experiences and lesssons learned from his years on the front lines of emergency-room medicine in Canada and in countries around the world including Ethiopia, Sudan, Cambodia, and Dadaab.
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Banyen: Why did you title your new book Life on the Ground Floor ?

James Maskalyk: The title reflects the angle from which I see it. All of the emergency rooms I've been in, no matter where, are on the ground floor because for the sickest and most vulnerable, sometimes a minute matters. Or a step. The book juxtaposes this basic truth, with the modern life we've made for ourselves, temporarily removed from the common experience floors below, or continents away.

Banyen: Can you describe some of the emergency rooms and circumstances you have worked in around the world, and how they compare to those in Canada?

James Maskalyk: It is almost nightshift right now, and I know during it, no matter where  the person is from, whether man or woman, Muslim or Christian, I can offer them the best medicine the world has to offer, hold nothing back. In Ethiopia, Sudan, Cambodia, Dadaab, many places like them, we can offer what we have at hand, which is often much less. We watch people die who otherwise would live, and families weep with sadness instead of relief. The reason for the difference, at the same time as working to repair it, becomes our quest, because we see all bodies as beautiful and deserving respite.

Banyen: What is it that continues to draw you to this work?

James Maskalyk
: The love I have for the people I've met along the way. The effortless beauty of the earth.  Once, when I started doing this work as a medical student, it was the hope that the world could be different. With MSF, it was a real anger, a righteous anger, that the order of things must change to include the most vulnerable. Now it is a faith, much bigger than me, that one day, it will. All that day requires is every person working towards it, including me, with every action, enlarging our notion of family to include strangers, all living things.

Banyen: What have you learned about yourself, humanity, and the world from working in these environments?

James Maskalyk
: If one doesn't work first on his own freedom, or happiness, no lasting good will come from his effort to encourage these in others, because he doesn't know what they look like. I can't claim to know. I've more work to do, but in it, I join the company of every person, and what great work. The world, well, she doesn't care much about what we do. She's too busy gathering and gushing, changing mountains to sand, pulling birds across oceans through hail and clouds. I get the sense she will be relieved, though, once we start caring for each other better with the endless tools she has given.
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James Maskalyk is the author of Life on the Ground Floor. He is an emergency-room physician, award-winning teacher and member of Medecins Sans Frontèires.

Interview © September 27, 2017 Banyen Books & Sound