Over the weekend, I had the privilege of meeting a man on a mission. Gino Strada, the founder of Emergency, has a vision for getting the necessary help to those who need it most, by providing unparalleled medical care to individuals and communities struck by poverty, civil unrest, and outright military conflict.
Trained as a physician specializing in cardiac surgery, Gino became a war surgeon, spent many years with the International Red Cross, and then left to found an organization with the unique goal of serving civilians caught up in poverty and war; civilians, after all, comprise the majority of injuries, not those serving in the military.
Gino and Rossella Miccio, Emergency’s Director of Humanitarian Programmes, were in town for a couple of days, and G. invited me to meet them.
There is nothing flashy or pretentious about Gino, neither in outward appearance nor in speech. With a mop of gray side-swept hair, jeans and leather moccasins, he looks and sounds like a man with a mind occupied by a thousand thoughts. Rossella, extroverted and cheerful, speaks with the knowledge and determination that stems from years of work in the field (primarily Afghanistan and Sudan) – but also from a well of deep-seated love for the people.
Meeting Gino and Rossella, and hearing their stories first-hand, brings the realities of third-world hardship, together with the widespread lack of medical treatment, into sharp focus: Stories about families in Africa walking for weeks from their village so that their child could undergo potentially life-saving cardiac surgery; about thousands of people lining up outside an Emergency facility, eager to enter and witness an oasis of first-world medical treatment, unavailable anywhere else in their world; about children who, though badly injured, in pain, possibly orphaned or devastated by bomb-shelling, nevertheless do not shed a tear.
Tales are told about governments conceding to – and then fully supporting – the efforts of Emergency, even when the organization’s first foray into a given country was seen with suspicion; about families who, fresh from learning about hygiene and cleanliness from their hospital visits, would return home and implement the same standards, causing an immeasurable positive ripple effect; about the mind-boggling success rate of surgical procedures in these remote facilities; about an Emergency technical staff person being operated on to prevent an impending ischemic attack; about life in Kabul and a Finnish doctor only half-listening to the proceedings of a meeting while listening out for, and counting, bird species; about making pasta in Sudan, but having to improvise with the local cheese.
It is awe-inspiring to listen and observe two people speak about the wonders of a heart re-starting after being artificially arrested for surgery; about the moments before the heart begins to pump once again, about the relief once it does – or the agony when, in the rare case, it does not.
Then, with an unobtrusive gesture, Gino steps out for a smoke. And Rossella tells another story, and you can hear the passion and commitment weaving themselves through her words. She speaks with surprise and excitement about the funds they have raised in Italy, where the organization is head-quartered and most widely known. It is self-evident that Rossella’s long-time association and work with Emergency is not a job, it is a way of life, a deeply-held commitment to make a difference.
Although I never met Gino before, he is partly to blame (or can take credit) for my first baby steps toward healing and total recovery. It is because of Gino’s vision that I received the quality of care that I did in Battambang. Even though he had to convince Cambodian authorities to relocate a spirit house in order to accommodate parking for staff vehicles, and despite the ongoing lack of political will, the presence of that facility has clearly provided medical care and hope to many.
I thanked Gino and Rossella for having, by their actions, unwittingly bestowed a gift upon me. Perhaps it was only blind (unconscious) faith that led me to their facility. But undoubtedly, there are other reasons also for our paths to have crossed.