In a sea of refugees, one successful intervention

With journalists' help, an American doctor gives hope to a boy with cancer

April 27, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUKES, ALBANIA — In Monday's editions, Sun foreign correspondent Will Englund wrote about a 6-year-old Kosovo Albanian boy whose cancer treatment had been suddenly interrupted when he was evicted from a Belgrade hospital. Yesterday, with the help of Englund and other journalists, a doctor found the boy among the masses of refugees in Albania and got him to a hospital where his life may be saved. This is Englund's account.

KUKES, Albania -- Six-year-old Mergim Rama may survive after all.

Abruptly discharged from a Belgrade hospital in the midst of chemotherapy 32 days ago and on the road with his parents ever since, the youngster will fly today to Albania's capital, Tirana, to resume his treatment.

Moving from house to house and village to village over the course of 23 days in Kosovo, and from refugee camp to refugee camp since arriving in Albania, Mergim had not seen a doctor since his expulsion from the Institute for Mothers and Children in Belgrade, for the crime of being an Albanian.

Yesterday, an emergency room physician from Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, Calif., waded through the muddy bog that is the Rama family's latest home and there began to arrange the long journey that will take Mergim away from the misery of Kukes and deliver him to the care he needs to fight the sarcoma in his buttock.

Journalists are supposed to keep their distance and not be part of the stories they cover, but sometimes it can't be helped.

What happened to Mergim stems in part from the peculiar way of life that develops in a crisis-ridden little city like Kukes, teeming with aid workers and reporters and film crews, and blessed with a place like the Bar Amerika.

We all hang out there. It can get boisterous, and the atmosphere can seem uncomfortably colonial at times, Albania being as poor as it is, but we go there nonetheless. In a city with virtually no working phones, it's where we seek each other out.

I had spent Sunday going from camp to camp with Karen Coleman, a reporter with Irish RTE radio, and on the lower slopes of Mount Gjallica we had found Mergim and his parents. They were in a camp that existed for only one day, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had been unable to work out an agreement with farmers who lived nearby and had decided to shut it down.

Mergim's mother and father, Bedrije and Afrim, told us how they had wandered for days through Kosovo and then after coming across to Albania had been moved four times in a week. They told us that Mergim's two sisters had fled the family home in Pristina and were with relatives in Macedonia but that his 12-year-old brother, Leotrim, was not with them and was likely somewhere in Kosovo.

They told us how Mergim was expelled from the hospital in Belgrade on March 25, the day after the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia began.

I wrote an article for yesterday's Sun, then Coleman and I made our way to Bar Amerika. There we bumped into Dr. Lawrence Stock, whom I had met days ago in the airport in Bologna, Italy, as a large contingent of journalists and aid workers waited for the flight to Albania.

Stock, 37, loves emergency room work but doesn't much love "the media." He's active and full of ideas and perpetually enthusiastic. He had done a tour in Bosnia for a group called International Medical Corps, and now he's here for a month while taking a leave from his job at Antelope Valley.

He invited us to join his table, which was full of Australians celebrating Anzac Day, the Australian Memorial Day. We told him about the 6-year-old boy we had found in a mountainside camp and about the terrible strain his parents were under.

Stock said, "We're supposed to be here to help people like that."

He brought up Mergim's case yesterday morning at a meeting of volunteer medical workers, and everyone agreed that the boy should be found and given treatment. But finding someone in the chaos of northern Albania is not easy.

As Stock left the meeting, he ran into a crew from MSNBC and told them all he knew: There was a boy about 6 years old, with a tumor and a fever, who had been in the now-closed mountain camp.

The television crew learned that the people from the mountain had been moved to a camp run by Doctors Without Borders, and by afternoon they had found Mergim. They brought Stock out from town to see him. In a baseball cap, white doctor's coat and mud-splashed boots, Stock did a quick examination in the field, then took the boy and his parents back to the city hospital.

"Sarcoma is a soft-tissue malignant tumor that is very dangerous," he said. "Under the best of circumstances, this is difficult to treat. These are not the best of circumstances.

"Today he was playful and running around like any other kid, which is a good sign. But everyone I know out here is chilled to the bone, and that's not good for someone whose immunity is already suppressed by chemo."

Mergim's mother was gladdened, but her joy is tempered.

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