2 doctors go to tend war victims

January 08, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- About this time each year, Dr. Bernhard Laukenmann puts aside his green hospital scrubs and looks for "the highest mountain and the deepest snow" he can find for his annual ski vacation.

There are mountains and snow where he's heading today, but it won't be a vacation for the anesthesiologist, who has volunteered to help victims of the bloody civil war engulfing the former Yugoslavia.

As part of the first team of United States medical experts to volunteer services to civilian war casualties there, Dr. Laukenmann and another Easton physician, Dr. Roger Orsini, are scheduled to leave Dulles International Airport this evening for the first leg of a 10-day trip to Croatia.

The two Maryland physicians, who practice at Memorial Hospital in Easton, will join four other U.S. doctors in Frankfurt, Germany, where they and a team coordinator and a camera man will fly to the Croatian capital of Zagreb.

From Zagreb, the small group will make its way south to Split, a small city on the Adriatic coast where thousands of refugees -- many of them cold, hungry and injured -- have fled to avoid the fighting in neighboring Bosnia among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Dr. Orsini, one of four plastic and reconstructive surgeons on the team, said he is not sure what the doctors will find once they enter Split.

"All we know is that basically the hospitals have been stripped," he said. Reports from Croatia, he said, paint a grim picture of conditions there. During Croatia's own war for independence last year, warring factions looted hospitals and medical centers. Many doctors have fled the region, he said, leaving the populace without adequate medical care.

Sonja Hagel, a registered nurse in Los Angeles who organized the trip after visiting Croatia in the summer, said she has told team members to brace themselves for the worst.

"The name of the game is flexibility and improvisation," she said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"We won't be able to do everything we want and we have to realize that. When I went over, I was filled with joy and energy. I came out in total psychological shock. There were tales of woe one after another."

The team's mission, she said, is to perform one-stage surgical operations that can be done fairly quickly, distribute antibiotics and other medicines and pass along to local doctors the latest techniques in handling burn and shrapnel injuries.

Ms. Hagel, who was born in Europe and was once married to a Croatian, said civilians in the region are disappointed that the U.S. government hasn't come to their aid.

She said the team of doctors, which is calling its effort "Operation Second Chance," will offer treatment to anyone regardless of their allegiance in the civil war.

"This is not political at all," she said. "We want to show people we care." Ms. Hagel said she and other group leaders used their contacts in medical organizations here and in Croatia to set up the trip without relying on federal bureaucrats in Washington.

She said supporters have contributed $14,000 in cash for the trip and another $26,000 worth of supplies and services, including lodging and some meals. Team members must pay for their flights there and back, but Delta Airlines has agreed to ship boxes of medical goods for free. Croatian officials promised to house the team in a hotel.

Group members called on hospital suppliers to donate drugs and medical equipment. The response was slow at first, said Ms. Hagel, but the team has accumulated enough supplies to fill several dozen boxes.

She said that once word of the humanitarian endeavor circulated in medical circles, she had to turn away volunteers because the trip would have become unmanageable. Drs. Laukenmann and Orsini are the only members of the group from the East Coast. The other physicians practice in California.

Many of the team members are using vacation time to travel to Croatia.

While he's there, Dr. Orsini will volunteer to perform reconstructive surgery on children born with cleft palates and lips, a specialty procedure he offers in his Eastern Shore clinic.

Dr. Orsini said the team plans to assess medical needs in Croatia so that subsequent trips by other doctors can address the most immediate health concerns. A volunteer camera man accompanying the group will document the trip to encourage other medical professionals in this country to follow in their steps.

For Dr. Laukenmann, the trip to Croatia has special significance.

A native of Germany who came to the United States to study medicine in 1956, he had been 14 years old when World War II drew to a close.

"Unless you wore a uniform then, you received no medical treatment," he said.

"There were no medical supplies and all the doctors had been drafted. There were tremendous problems caring for civilian casualties then. I'm sure that has not changed."

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