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Long Islanders serving overseas agencies find challenges, danger, fulfillment

They say work with Doctors Without Borders, the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad and DanChurchAid is worth the hardships.

Kerri Kelly, a Baldwin native, is a former investment bank manager who now works with Doctors without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontiéres. Kelly talked about her efforts on Dec. 19, 2018, shortly before leaving for her fifth mission in South Sudan. (Credit: Corey Sipkin)

When the 2008 housing crisis crashed the U.S. economy, Baldwin native Kerri Kelly lost her high-paying job as a manager at Manhattan investment bank Bear Stearns — but, she says, she found a higher calling a world away. 

Instead of watching the ups and downs of Wall Street, Kelly now oversees a 3,500-person mission for Doctors Without Borders, more commonly known by its French moniker, Médecins Sans Frontiéres, which is providing medical aid to people in South Sudan during an increasingly bloody civil war in the world’s youngest nation.

“I am lucky to be a part of the great work we can do around the world,"  Kelly said. "We affect the lives of millions of people."

Kelly is among many good Samaritans in the Long Island area who, armed only with expertise and altruism, place themselves in peril by traveling to countries struck by natural or man-made disasters to help strangers stay alive. Instead of sending checks to aid agencies or offering thoughts and prayers, they make big personal sacrifices by going abroad to make a difference.

For some like Kelly, such work becomes a calling, a passion that defines their lives going forward. Others choose to spring into action on an ad hoc basis, such as the group of Long Island-based Haitian-American physicians who raced to assist the wounded in the 2010 earthquake that killed between 100,000 and 300,000 people in the Caribbean country.

Despite the dangers, many say the reward of helping those less fortunate far outweighs the risks. Some say they feel a responsibility to do what they can to ease suffering, while others speak of the friendships they have made and the adventure overseas missions can offer.

"When I am asked why I joined MSF," said Maneesha Ahluwalia, an infectious diseases physician who previously worked at the former North Shore Long Island Jewish Hospital in New Hyde Park, "My first answer is 'Why would you not? It’s a chance to not only help other people, but have adventure."

A new adventure

Looking for a career change after losing her job, Kelly said she chose MSF because the group had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and she was ready for something new after being in the world of banking and finance.

While she had no medical background — Kelly earned a degree in civil engineering from The Cooper Union and an MBA from New York University — she said she learned that nonmedics such as administrators, architects, financial planners and engineers are just as numerous in MSF as the doctors, nurses and medical technicians for whom it is best known. 

She thought she would give the group a shot for a year, but she said she stayed on for the results she saw unfold in the lives of millions of people affected by the organization’s vaccinations, and trauma and disease treatment. The missions where she has served have performed a host of services, such as treating children for malaria or cholera, vaccinating against measles and providing prenatal care for pregnant women, often in war zones or in far-flung rural enclaves where Kelly barely knows a word of the local language.

In 2017, MSF reported that it conducted 10,648,300 outpatient consultations, assisted in 288,900 births and treated 2,520,600 cases of malaria and operated with a budget of more than $1.8 billion — 96 percent of its income coming from private donations. MSF employs 42,000 people for medical projects in 70 countries, some of them in places where the United Nations also has peacekeeping missions or humanitarian operations.  

Kelly has worked in the Republic of Georgia, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi,  as well as Libya during the Arab Spring-derived civil unrest in 2011 that eventually toppled and led to the execution of longtime strongman Moammar Khadafy.

She is currently in South Sudan — a long way from home for Kelly, who played soccer as a Baldwin High School Bruin in her youth and didn't travel much growing up. As someone who is either always on a mission or preparing for the next one, Kelly said she sometimes misses home, particularly the beaches of Long Island.  

“What keeps me going is, it’s really rewarding,” she said. “Working at the big bank, I will tell you, was more financially rewarding. But there are a lot of different types of rewards in the world and I think I am lucky to do this work for someone who I am proud to work with.”

Long Island's globe-trotting good Samaritans also include the team of physicians who responded, at their own expense, to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti through the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad.

"At the bottom of it all is a desire to help your fellow human being and to some extent, that overcomes that personal fear," said Dr. Lambros Angus, director of trauma at Nassau University Medical Center, who traveled to Haiti with several NUMC experts including Dr. Anthony Boutin, head of the emergency department, and  Dr. Micheline Dole, interim director of ambulatory pediatrics.

"These people are living under conditions that are horrible every single day," Angus said, adding that he is scheduled for another medical mission to Haiti in March. "Our own safety is a concern but to do something to help our fellow human beings, God’s children, that is what motivates us."

Dole said she was inspired by the resilience of patients who dealt with excruciating pain during procedures to treat their trauma, even without anesthesia.

"The pain that they had I think is less than what they endured by seeing the earthquake," she said. "And the resilience of the people is something I really admired."

Northport’s Matthew Walsh serves as program manager for a Danish nongovernmental organization, DanChurchAid.

The group works on humanitarian concerns in Myanmar, a country that has drawn international scorn for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands after a military campaign of murder, rape and destruction of villages starting in August 2017, UN experts have said.

"I've worked in the slums of Cape Town and Dhaka, the jungles and battlefields of Myanmar, and being exposed to the suffering which civilians are forced to endure in these places, from war, natural disasters, grinding poverty, or all of the above, I feel a moral responsibility to do what little I can to address these issues," Walsh said.

Boutin, too, found a personal calling in the assignment.

"I felt it was my duty to go back," the Haitian native said of the weeklong excursion. "For me, it was easy to go back. I didn't need a translator and I felt right at home especially when I got to Haiti and saw the American troops. I knew I was safe and could take care of my patients."

Dangerous work

Some humanitarian workers end up in the midst of warfare or contracting the diseases they are trying to eradicate.

In October 2015, U.S. military forces bombed an MSF-run hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 of its personnel. As many as 16 American military personnel, a general included, were disciplined for the attack that the Pentagon said was the result of a series of blunders.

And two years ago, Valerie Gruhn of Brooklyn, an emergency room nurse at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, worked as a trauma nurse in Mosul, Iraq. She was there during three harrowing months when Islamic State militants and Iraqi forces battled for control of the city.

Gruhn, who published a journal of the horrors she witnessed during the mission, was shaken by a June 10, 2017, attack in West Mosul that sparked her unit’s evacuation. Her journal entries are full of graphic details of fatal injuries, a loss of limbs and hope, and an abundance of fear.

“Iraq's future is bleak,” read her June 20 entry in Warscapes, an online magazine. “People who survived lost everything they had — their homes, their limbs, and their loved ones. I'd never seen so many wounded children. I never understood what it was like to live in a place where just being alive means you are privileged.”

She continued: “I've seen plenty of suffering in the world, but never anything like this. People's faces and eyes painted the horrors they had lived through, and if they still had their limbs, their feet were raw from walking barefoot for kilometers to reach the nearest hospital.”

Gruhn, who grew up in France where MSF was created by journalists and doctors, said she always dreamed of joining the group. She called her experience in Mosul “life-changing” during an interview at the UN.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be the same,” she said. “It’s changed my outlook on life and on people . . . I feel like it’s unfair that there are millions of people who don’t have the same luck that we do, don’t have the same safety of being able to leave their home or just stay in their home.”

Not all assignments expose MSF workers to grave danger, though.

Ahluwalia, who now works at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, served for nine months at a MSF clinic treating patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis in Nairobi, Kenya.

Her experience was relatively free of danger from the civil strife in other parts of the country, though she said it was challenging and exciting.

She was lured into her first mission after MSF set up a mock refugee camp in the middle of Manhattan, a spectacle the young doctor said whet her appetite for a foreign assignment. The experience led her on to two other missions in Uganda and Cambodia.

Ahluwalia and Gruhn, who has been on missions in Kenya, Chad and Iraq and is joining a mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year as it grapples with an epidemic of Ebola, both said they found leaving their patients and MSF staffers after several months to be one of the more difficult parts of the assignments. They developed connections and friendships and felt as if they all but abandoned people who still need their help.

Despite the travel to foreign places and new relationships that can be formed, Gruhn described her time in places like Mosul as “surreal,” adding that an MSF assignment is not to be taken lightly.

“It’s not a job,” she said. “It’s a passion. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. If anything, I feel really fortunate that I can do this.”

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