Bioprecarity in the context of humanitarian surgical missions
Pediatric heart surgery missions define an emergent, high-tech form of medical humanitarianism characterized by their focus not on populations in crisis (Redfield 2013), but on broken body parts—in this case, damaged pediatric hearts. Comprised of specialists from the world’s most elite medical centers, mission teams make brief visits to poor countries to perform highly-specialized and otherwise prohibitively expensive surgical procedures on children with few alternatives for survival. A team’s success is measured in terms of patient volume, surgical complexity, and the probability of the patient being well enough to leave the hospital within 30 days. This chapter explores the forms of bioprecarity that both precede and follow mission visits and that inadvertently affect the very patients whose surgeries are publicly billed as ‘successes’. That is, as much as surgical missions aim to repair pediatric bodies in distress, they, too, produce new anxieties, uncertainties, and biological vulnerabilities for patients and their families that are often visible only long after missions depart from the host country. These findings emerged from 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Honduras, an established destination for medical and surgical missions, where I carried out observations and interviews in public hospitals before, during, and after visits by pediatric heart surgery missions as well as in the homes of surgical patients.
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