Baltimore dental student sews up wounded Somalis

December 17, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent Staff writers Robert A. Erlandson and John Rivera contributed to this article.

BAIDOA, Somalia -- Ramon Pollock, lately of the University of Maryland dental school, has been here for months stitching up the wounded and maimed, the victims of Somalia's brutalities.

He came out from Baltimore to do this work, without a surgeon's certificate, although he did study at Howard University to be a physician's assistant. And, more helpful, he worked in the emergency room at the District of Columbia hospital.

Mr. Pollock, who is 28, doesn't allow fine points to get in his way. He has disdain for bureaucrats who impede his work. And he doesn't like the Marines who have finally come out here to make life a little safer, a little easier in this town in the heart of the Somalian famine zone.

He also doesn't much like being asked by other people the really difficult question everybody in his position eventually comes around to asking themselves.

Why did you come out here? Why did you interrupt your career at the University of Maryland Dental School after completing the first year to come to this blasted place?

"I don't know, just something to do," he replied laconically. Then, with just a touch of impatience: "What do you want me to say? That I came out to help these people?"

Ramon Pollock likes to talk tough. He is slim, handsome in a clean-cut military way in hospital greens, close-cropped, neat. He talks like a Marine with lots of loose profanity, and in fact he was one for a while.

But that's a sore point with him. It's also one that suggests the nature of the man: extremely individualistic, determined far beyond average, unforgiving of people and institutions when they fail to keep promises.

When Ramon Pollock signed up for the Marine Corps he was 17. He enlisted, he said, with a promise he would be trained in a specific kind of work. He wasn't. "They lied to me, jerked me around."

Most young men would have put their heads down and served out their enlistment. Ramon Pollock decided he was going to un-enlist.

"I wouldn't put on the uniform. Wouldn't work," he said.

The consequence was a general discharge under honorable conditions by the time he was 19.

It is the kind of document you don't show off. People who have them often wind up working as wipers in car washes, or laboring in other unpromising fields.

But Ramon Pollock is one of those people who obeys his own sense of personal integrity, rather than accepting the code of the corps, any corps.

For him, the discharge was not his failing. He left the Marines and put himself through physician's assistant training at Howard University in Washington.

Then, he enrolled at the University of Maryland Dental School and studied to be an oral surgeon.

Then, after a year, moved by some sentiment he doesn't care to disclose, or doesn't himself understand, he asked for a leave of absence and signed up with the California-based International Medical Corps.

"I'm a surgical assistant, but here I work as a surgeon," he said. His work day runs between 10 to 14 hours. He has something of a reputation among his colleagues.

Angela Guerrera, the IMC administrator in Nairobi, has heard of him, but never met him.

"He has the highest admiration of everyone there [in Baidoa]," she said. "People even like to come to watch him work, his surgery's that good."

But Ramon Pollock is not a surgeon.

"No, he's not," she says with a smile. But in Somalia it's the skill that counts, not the credentials. His colleagues agree he has the former, if not yet the latter.

Dr. Marvin Barnard, director of emergency care at District of Columbia General Hospital, who was Ramon Pollock's supervisor, said Mr. Pollock did "primary assessment" of emergency room patients, and "quite a bit of suturing."

His former supervisor was untroubled by the thought that Mr. Pollock might be doing the work of a surgeon in Somalia. "I'm sure the medical rules are different in Somalia than they are here."

"In a situation like this, people are called upon to be flexible and do different things in different situations," said Fred Speilberg, IMC's director of international operations in Los Angeles.

The IMC has 28 people at work throughout Somalia, including doctors, nurses and logistics people.

They operate the Baidoa Regional Hospital. Since rehabilitating it earlier this year, they have treated thousands of people.

Much of their work is treating bullet, shrapnel and other war-related wounds. They are up to it. The IMC cut its teeth in the Afghan war and was brought into formal existence as an emergency medical relief organization in 1984.

That phase of their work may end now that Baidoa has been pacified by the arrival of the troops, and the medical teams can get on with treating famine related illnesses, and training Somalis to carry on after they've pulled out.

Asked what he thought of Operation Restore Hope, Mr. Pollock was generally approving. But he was unequivocal on the big question that has divided many of those responsible for the operation, such as the forces commander, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, and U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali. What to do about the Somalis and their guns?

"I heard the Marines weren't going to disarm them [the Somalis]," he said, adding, "It seems to me, if you're going to do a job you don't do it in such a half-assed way."

Though Ramon Pollock won't admit with any seriousness that he really did come all the way out here to help these people, just ask him if he's looking forward to leaving.

"I'm dreading June, when I go home."

Some tough guy.

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