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Emergency

01/15/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page

The power of one person to conceive a superb idea and have the gumption to get others to join in and make huge changes actually happen, amazes me. Milan-born Dr. Gino Strada is one such human dynamo. Strada is a well-trained and experienced surgeon who served at both Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh in this country. As he approached his fifties he started worrying about how medical care was managed in the Third World, and what kind of service was actually available to civilians in war-torn areas.

So he visited eight war-torn areas, and concluded that the International Committee of the Red Cross, under whose auspices he went, really could not provide high quality care in battle areas or in refugee camps. What such places most needed, he felt, were full hospitals with all the essentials in place.

He enlisted his wife, their friends, and anyone else who would listen to him, and they raised more than $16 million dollars in six years, starting in 1988. They had donations from private donors, from an Italian government department, from European Humanitarian Aid, and from a professional Italian soccer team. With that money, with all the help he could enlist, and with tireless effort, his group, simply called Emergency, caused hospitals to be built in several troubled areas, including Afghanistan, where they now have several.

Scientific American magazine recently reported on Strada's work, and described one of his hospitals at the foot of the barren, forbidding Hindu Kush mountain range. The clean white hospital structure with its red-and-white striped symbol is a visual shock in that brown and empty space, like spotting a gas station in the Sahara. It's a real hospital, too: called Anabah hospital, it has a radiology suite, two operating theaters complete with oxygen supply, a clinical laboratory, sterilizers, a blood bank, an intensive care unit, four surgical wards with beds for seventy and of course its own electrical generators. Afghanistan's a country where even a single, bare, functioning light-bulb is uncommon. "Emergency" also staffed six first-aid posts on the Northern Alliance's front line.

Strada's group of dedicated professionals trains local people as nurses, surgeons, and support staff, so that over time they can run the place themselves. That frees the professional team to take their skills to other war-torn areas. "Emergency" has hospitals in several embattled regions, including Bosnia and Cambodia.

Creating a modern hospital in a country like Afghanistan, suffering from more than two decades of war, is a Herculean challenge. First they must find an existing empty building that can be renovated or rebuilt for use as a modern hospital. Then they must haul in needed materials, in battered, unreliable trucks, over dirt roads pocked with bomb-craters. They must search out scroungeable materials from which to make internal walls and other needed structures. They must buy sophisticated hospital equipment, or beg it from well-to-do hospital or health organizations elsewhere in the world. But when finished Emergency has one more fully-functioning hospital that fits their motto: "Life support for civilian war victims."

As we Americans know from our September 11 experience, serious destruction in any country is likely to ignite people's rage, and any killing of civilians is especially resented, even -- as in Afghanistan -- civilian casualties that occur during efforts to be helpful. Further, our unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan, as well as the thousands of land mines left from their war with Russia, continue to endanger the lives of innocents. Let us hope our Administration and military leaders can find ways to make our goodwill clear, and to help these people injured, exhausted and impoverished by 22 years of war.

This is Ruth Page, describing one instance of massive humanitarian aid inspired initially by a single person, Italy's Dr. Gino Strada.

--Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.
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