December 2001 Bulletin

Sept. 11 terrorism slows HVO volunteerism

Despite reaction chairman believes disaster won’t extinguish the light of humanitarianism

By Barry J. Gainor, MD

It was the last carefree weekend ever in New York City. We strolled down a deserted Wall Street to enjoy a Saturday of Indian Summer. Our son had interviewed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a law clerkship, so we took family photos with the World Trade Center as a sun-splashed backdrop. Less than 72 hours later, the towers were a charred pile of rubble and graveyard to thousands of hard-working Americans.

An historic crossroads for the United States, the Sept. 11, 2001 conflagration in our country’s financial district has touched all aspects of our lives, including volunteerism abroad. It painfully reminded me of the murder of Orthopaedics Overseas member Rodney Belcher, MD, in Uganda in 1996. This fatal car-jacking in a clinic parking lot sent a chill through the corps of AAOS fellows who are committed to international medical volunteer service.

As chairman of Orthopaedics Overseas at the time of Dr. Belcher’s slaying, I was lost as how to absorb the senseless killing of a gentle-spirited orthopaedic surgeon who had selflessly dedicated himself full-time to providing medical care for the underserved in Africa. In the bewildering days after Dr. Belcher’s death, I visited family in Chicago and noted newspaper headlines that reported three innocent customers were gunned down in a floral shop robbery. Are we ever truly safe? Not really. When going to a florist to pick up flowers, I generally expect to get out of the shop alive.

The randomness of these unrelated deaths somehow quelled my near panic that Orthopaedics Overseas volunteers would withdraw from volunteer services, and our organization would wither. There were a few subsequent canceled assignments, but soon our brave volunteers were back to business as usual. The World Trade Center attack, however, is a wound of many magnitudes greater to our national and geopolitical conscientiousness.

Orthopaedics Overseas is no stranger to the tides of war that cultivated Afghanistan as a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. In the 1980s, Orthopaedics Overseas operated its largest program in Afghanistan. With the emergence of the Taliban faction and a political climate of violent unrest, the program was suspended in 1996.

Orthopaedics Overseas is the parent and backbone of the multispecialty organization Health Volunteers Overseas. In 2001, Health Volunteers Overseas proudly expected to field a record number of almost 400 volunteers abroad. In the fearful aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, fewer than 300 HVO volunteers dare to journey to foreign soil.

Overseas medical service is more vital to the future of internationalism than ever. Humanitarianism is a powerful person-to-person interface that bilaterally dispels prejudices and dismantles stereotypes. AAOS members who go overseas to serve those corners of the world that have no access to modern medicine are the most important ambassadors that our nation can produce. The pioneer spirit and unique courage of those medical workers cannot be tamed by threat and intimidation, which is the primary goal of terrorist acts.

Terrorism is a pestilence, but the world has rid itself of worse plagues. In time, we shall conquer our dread of air travel and not be held hostage by fear in our own land. Soon, volunteer medical workers will reexplore foreign destinations. The light of international humanitarianism, now carried by more world-wise volunteers, will shed its incandescent glow again on the orthopaedic landscape in the times ahead.

Barry J. Gainor, MD, is chairman of Health Volunteers Overseas

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