Dr. Joanne Liu: A visionary leader healing the wounds of war and championing global health with compassion.
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Healing the Wounds of War: Dr Joanne Liu

Dr. Joanne Liu is a trailblazer in global health, who served as the International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from 2013 to 2019. With decades of experience working in conflict-ridden areas, she has dedicated her life to providing medical care to those in need. Dr. Liu specializes in pediatric medicine and has a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine. She is also an associate professor at the Université de Montréal and has taught at Fudan University in Shanghai. In 2013, Dr. Liu received the Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, recognizing her outstanding contributions to global health and human rights.


Growing up as a visible minority in Quebec City shaped Dr. Liu profoundly, instilling in her a sense of otherness that was felt every day. She says, “Despite being surrounded by my loving family, with three Liu’s listed in the phone book, I was constantly reminded of my differences from those around me.” The subtle yet poignant experiences of being addressed in English while walking around Montreal or being asked by a store owner how long she had lived in Quebec only further emphasized her sense of difference. 


This feeling of difference led Dr. Liu to seek meaning and purpose in the world. When she was searching for this meaning as a teenager, she read books that made a profound impression on her. One such book was Et la paix, Docteur? She recalls, “It was about a doctor who worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in a war zone. I had also read The Plague by Albert Camus, and in a passage in the book, the protagonist doctor is asked:” ‘What motivates you? All your patients are dying, you have nothing to offer them, no medicine, and you are not even religious’. Then, he answers: ‘I never got used to death.’ When I read that, I promised myself that I would never get used to death and that I would work for the triumph of life.”


Fueled by the message in the book, Dr. Liu took the next step on her journey. She joined Carrefour Canadien International, eager to use her skills and knowledge to work in international cooperation in Africa. It was during this 3-month mission that Dr. Liu truly found her calling. Surrounded by the beauty and complexity of the continent, she was moved by the struggles and triumphs of the people she met and knew in her heart that she was meant to be a doctor in the developing world.


With a newfound sense of purpose, Dr. Liu returned home with a promise to herself – she would come back and work as a doctor in developing countries, helping to bring hope and healing to those in need.


With determination, Dr. Liu planned her education, selecting courses and opportunities to equip her for a career in providing medical care in underdeveloped nations. This dedication was born from her clerkship, where she fell in love with pediatrics. “The pediatric patients I encountered were the most fulfilling, and I realized that I would always be eager to care for a child, even if it meant being woken up in the middle of the night,” she explains. 


This passion was further fueled by her interest in trauma and emergency medicine, knowing that she wanted to work in war-torn countries and help those in need. She was ultimately rewarded when she started working at MSF in 1996, where she was first deployed to provide aid to Malian refugees in Mauritania. Over the years, she has continued to work tirelessly in some of the world’s most challenging and direst humanitarian crises, including providing support after the devastating 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, helping those affected by the earthquake and cholera epidemic in Haiti, and working with Somali refugees in Kenya.


Aside from providing medical care, Dr. Liu’s commitment to helping those in need is reflected in her work in developing comprehensive medical support programs for survivors of sexual violence in the Republic of Congo. Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly in conflict zones, including Palestine, the Central African Republic, and the Darfur region of Sudan, bringing hope and healing to those who need it the most. 


In October 2013, Dr. Liu took on the role of International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations. She quickly established herself as a passionate and powerful advocate for global health, bringing her expertise and experience to bear in some of the world’s most challenging and pressing humanitarian crises.


In October 2015, she demanded an independent investigation into the American bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz. Dr Liu described the bombing as a possible war crime, and her powerful denunciation helped to bring attention to the issue, prompting calls for greater accountability and protection for medical workers and facilities in conflict zones.


Her experiences in providing medical care in conflict-ridden areas have made her aware of the significance of raising awareness and fostering common values of humanity. She explains, “People often violate human rights due to ignorance, laziness, or convenience, but the shared values of our common humanity can bring us together and create a bond of solidarity. Instead of focusing on our differences, we should embrace our common humanity and work towards a shared understanding of our human condition.”


Her unrelenting dedication to global health and human rights was demonstrated in 2020 and 2021 when she served as a member of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), which was tasked with examining the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Liu, along with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-chaired the panel, providing critical insights and guidance into how the world can better prepare for future pandemics. Through her tireless efforts, Dr. Liu has shown her dedication to creating a more equitable and just world for all.

Her advice to future generations of women in medicine is simple: “Be confident and unapologetic. Don’t feel guilty for wanting a work-life balance, even if it’s different from traditional expectations in a male-dominated field. Stay true to your ambitions, and don’t let comfort, flattery, or promotions sway you from your path. It may be difficult, but holding onto your dreams is crucial for success.”