Medical `diplomat' comforts refugees

Doctor from Baltimore working in Macedonia camp with aid group

War In Yugoslavia

May 13, 1999|By Jeff Israely | Jeff Israely,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SENOKOS CAMP, Macedonia -- Within 24 hours of arriving in Macedonia from Baltimore, Dr. Drew Fuller came face to face with the scale of the Kosovo crisis.

Instead of the few patients he might have on the emergency room night shift at St. Joseph Medical Center, the 32-year-old physician had hundreds of desperate and exhausted Kosovars brought by bus.

"People were rushing the medical tent, collapsing from exhaustion. We basically had to do triage right outside the buses," said Fuller. "My ER experience allowed me to know in two or three seconds who's really sick and who can wait. But still, you had no idea what was going to come off the next bus."

Some of the refugees had spent weeks sleeping in the open, and in the wake of a steamy 12-hour bus ride, there were serious cases of dehydration, diarrhea and vomiting. There was also a 13-year-old girl who had seen her father shot to death and who needed an immediate tranquilizer.

Monthlong stint

Fuller is at this refugee camp in western Macedonian on a monthlong stint for Doctors of the World, a New York-based aid group.

There are periods when the pace is frenetic, like that of an emergency room, but most of the time he spends helping the camp's 3,000 ethnic Albanian refugees involves listening and compassion as much as it does his stethoscope and prescription pad.

During a recent shift, an 11-year-old boy who had lost his parents at the border a week before was brought in by an adult cousin who had found him stranded alone at another refugee camp near Skopje.

The boy, whose face was pale and clothes were filthy, had a fever and a pain in his abdomen. Fuller checked his vital signs, pushed on the boy's midsection and asked him to jump as high as he could. The boy smiled slightly, stood up and jumped.

Through a translator, Fuller told the cousin that the boy looked fine and that the pain was probably the result of anxiety or a mild virus.

After a round of high-fives, Fuller rubbed the top of the boy's head and moved on to his next patient.

"I have a motto back in Baltimore," he said later: " `To cure sometimes and comfort always.' Comforting is really key here."

First experience abroad

This is Fuller's first experience working abroad and, except for a one-day medical school tour of facilities after Hurricane Andrew in his native Florida, his first full-time venture into the middle of a humanitarian disaster.

With the help of St. Joseph emergency room colleagues who took over a few of his regular night shifts, Fuller was able to arrange to use his two weeks of annual vacation and two weeks of professional development time to come to Macedonia.

Fuller has a master's degree in public health from Harvard and did his training in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

His dry sense of humor baffles his translators, and his self-confidence reassures his patients.

Fuller said he is learning about the effects of the war from his colleagues in Doctors of the World, which had a mission for five years in Kosovo before members were expelled over the past six weeks.

"All the staff has escaped," he said. "Their wounds are just as deep as the patients'."

Urim Ahmeti, a 30-year-old medical student and computer expert for the aid group, escaped two weeks after the NATO attacks began on March 24. He was turned away twice at the border before reuniting with his wife and two daughters in Macedonia. He awaits news about his parents in Pristina.

"I've never felt so insecure in my whole life," Ahmeti said during a break on the camp's medical night shift. "We have to face the reality that no matter what Uncle Clinton says, we may never go back home."

The professional experience for Fuller has been gratifying and humbling.

"I thought I was going to come in the big `American doctor' and treat these people. But the clinic would probably run more efficiently with all Albanians," he said.

"Still, we can serve almost as medical diplomats. I think just the sight of us here, and walking around camp, helps to comfort. They know the rest of the world cares."

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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