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The rapid adoption of high technology in medicine initially led Au to begin to doubt his ability. But the chance to work in disaster and conflict areas restored his confidence and gave him immense satisfaction.

Out in the field, with a lack of resources and support, traditional surgical skills become the most reliable tools in the surgical theatre – they are what Au has persisted in and excels at.

“You are the only doctor and you are the last one,” says Au. “You are not supposed to think whether you can do it or not, but how to do it.”

Over a period of 13 years, Au has been to 13 different places on different humanitarian medical missions. This makes him the medical volunteer who has participated in the most missions from Hong Kong. In 2008, Au went to Sichuan after the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people and injured many more. Later, he also worked in Haiti and Indonesia after earthquakes in those countries.  In 2013, he went to the Philippines, after it was ravaged by super Typhoon Haiyan. Au has also volunteered to treat those in conflict zones such as Gaza, Liberia and South Sudan.

Au with a colleague at Teme Hospita, where he worked with MSF.
Au with a colleague at Teme Hospita, where he worked with MSF.

Each mission brings him great satisfaction and he is animated as he recalls them excitedly. He says they all are very unique to him as he can always experience new things.

Sometimes, this means encounters with unpredicted dangers. Once, during a mission to Pakistan in 2012, Au’s workplace came under attack from the Taliban. While Au was performing an operation, a colleague suddenly knocked on the door and cried “evacuation!” At first, Au thought it was a joke. But soon, he realised it was not. Everyone had to pack up immediately and leave following a designated route within five minutes.

“I thought I was experienced enough and wouldn’t be intimidated by the Taliban. But still, my hands were shaking when evacuating,” Au laughs.

Although Au is not discouraged or daunted by such dangers, it is another matter for his family members. He knows he is fortunate to have the unconditional support of his wife and son. They made no exception about Au’s mission to Gaza last July, during hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Palestine. Au says it was the first time he had been to a war zone and he was prepared for the worst. “I found my medical student and my son to say my last words [before I left for the mission],” he says.