Medical Teams International | Official Blog

Stories of hope, health and lives transformed.

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  • Helping Syrian refugees: Life in Diavata

    by Tyler Graf | Aug 19, 2016

    For refugees in Greece, health care needs are growing more urgent with each passing day. With European borders effectively closed, and war raging in Syria, thousands of refugees have been confined to makeshift camps for months. Unable to to move freely or work, to eat well or seek adequate care, these refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    They are losing hope.

    But your gifts are providing care! Earlier this month, Medical Teams International dispatched a volunteer nurse and doctor to provide care to the neediest refugees, those whose physical and psychological conditions are deteriorating. The following is a dispatch from the field, from long-time volunteer nurse Sharon Tissel, who has spent two weeks with refugees in northern Greece.

    Today, World Humanitarian Day, is an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian and why it matters.

    By Sharon Tissell, RN
    As we arrive at the Diavata refugee camp, where 1,200 refugees live, there is already a patient waiting in the shipping container that has been remodeled to serve as our clinic.

    She is wailing.

    She complains of severe abdominal pain and is surrounded by her concerned family.

    It takes a half hour and several medicines to settle her down enough to examine her. Her exam turns out to be unremarkable and further investigation reveals she suffers from repeated psychosomatic episodes related to trauma she has experienced. Resources of the kind she needs are extremely limited. Even Greek nationals have to wait months for a referral to specialists.

    There are psychologists who regularly see patients in the camps, who provide some treatment for cases like these. So many of these refugees live in circumstances they never imagined, and for some reality is too much to bear.

    Beautiful little 1-year-old Kosay had been nursing poorly and running a fever. His concerned mother brought him in at the end of clinic day to be checked. His exam looked completely normal until I found the culprit. Kosay had severe tonsillitis. This is not an unusual diagnosis. But in the setting of a refugee camp, a young child could become extremely ill. The goal of our work here is to catch such infections before they become life threatening events.

    With consistent access to good health care for these refugees, we hope to avoid those common diseases that can escalate into emergencies. If we do our work well, we will have few emergencies and instead be able to treat healthcare needs early, focusing on preventing the diseases that can impact the heath of a whole refugee population. Kosay and his reassured mother went home with medicine but also with a plan for improved health. That is why Medical Teams is here.

    Our clinic day is long and the heat is exhausting. To get a breath of fresh air I took a walk down the long paths that wind through Diavata, accompanied with Ahmed, our Egyptian interpreter. We chatted with the children, played some silly games and after a repeated invitation accepted a chair to sit with Ibrahim and Sadsa. 

    Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (2)
    Ibrahim and Sadsa share cups of a coffee-like drink.

    Sadsa quickly prepares the strong, black, scalding drink which she offers us in a plastic glass. Seeing her graceful movements, I can imagine her serving guests in her home, using the lovely tiny crystal glasses common to Syria. Those, and almost all their belongings, did not make the journey with her. She refuses to take a chair but sits on the ground next to her husband and smiles shyly. 

    Ibrahim and Sadsa have four children and they relate to me how Ibrahim provided for his family as an international driver. This provided a good income for his family but also took him away from home for long periods at a time. With the increasing violence from ISIS in their area, they joined with many others and paid for a place on the rubber boats traveling to Greece. 

    Maybe because Ibrahim was a driver or maybe just bad luck but he was assigned to drive the boat to Greece. (The smugglers make so much money on these transactions that they consider the boat as an operating expense, never expecting to retrieve it.) Ibrahim remembers the treacherous journey. He felt responsible for this group of Syrians hanging on for dear life. He says the boat was “swamped” twice and one time everyone was in the water clinging to the boat. 

    They made the journey, however; but now he wonders why. I asked him, “Ibrahim, if you had known in Syria what you know now, would you have still made the trip?”

    “No!” he exclaimed. “I would rather be even in Sudan right now (with all its civil war) than here in this camp. See that box behind me?” as he points to a white shipping container sitting on the edge of the camp. “This camp is like that box for us. We are closed up in a box and cannot get out.”

    I moved the conversation to his children and he called for his youngest, 3-year-old Razan, a beautiful daughter with blond hair and chubby cheeks. “See this?” he asked and shows me some scars on her tummy.

    Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (1)
    Ibrahim with 3-year-old Razan.

    These are injuries that occurred recently during a severe untreated asthma attack as she was struggling to gain breath. They had no access to her inhalers that she used in Syria. I was able to give him some information on how to treat her asthma and things to avoid in the camp.

    At the clinic, Ibrahim was grateful to receive a rescue inhaler for Razan. It was a small but important thing we could do for our neighbor here in Diavata, and we know it will make a difference for this family as they wait for their future to begin.

    For these refugees, whose futures are uncertain, you are providing a bright spot. This is what being a humanitarian is all about, demonstrating love to a neighbor in need. Because of your donations, medical teams like the one dispatched to Greece can make a profound difference in the lives of the world's most vulnerable.
  • Spotlight Greece: Refugees come full circle

    by Tyler Graf | Aug 12, 2016

    Greece, Kathi with Mo - Laotian refugee, June 2016

    Medical Teams International volunteer Kathi Karnosh with Mo, whose family migrated to the U.S. from Laos in the late '70s to escape the Khmer Rouge. The two unexpectedly met at the Athens International Airport.

    The Athens International Airport terminal was bustling on a blazing-hot summer afternoon, as members of Medical Teams International's dental team awaited boarding of their New York City-bound flight. 

    Sapped of energy, Kathi Karnosh, a dental hygienist from Portland, Ore., was settling in for a pre-flight nap. She and the other members of the team were returning stateside following a week in Greece, a sojourn spent treating refugees.

    Before Kathi could drift away, she noticed a woman next to her. She leaned over, smiled and spoke, asking the woman if she'd been traveling through Greece. Yes, the woman replied. She was returning from a family trip with her teenage daughter.

    The woman said her name was Mo.

    Kathi explained that she was part of a dental team that had been traveling through the northern part of the country treating refugees who'd made the perilous trip across the Aegean Sea. She described the sad situations she encountered -- children torn from their families, parents unable to work, and medical needs going untreated.

    "Oh my goodness," Mo said. "That brings back memories."

    Kathi didn't know what to make of that comment. Memories of what?

    "I was a refugee," Mo said.

    Suddenly, Kathi perked up with a need to listen to Mo's story. This was too amazing, she thought.

    And the story only grew more unbelievably poignant as it went on, drawing parallels between Kathi's own life and the work of Medical Teams International.
    When Mo was 8 years old, she was living in Laos near the Cambodian border with her single mother and sister. This was during the height of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, when the genocide was in full swing. Strained by the effects of extreme poverty, Mo's family fled to a settlement in Thailand.

    Thailand, Kathi thought. That was the very country in which Medical Teams began, the country where the very first team of doctors and nurses went to treat refugees, people like Mo. 

    Kathi remembers being a young mother in 1979 and seeing footage of refugees fleeing to Thailand. She remembers seeing Ron Post, the founder of Medical Teams International (then known as Northwest Medical Teams), on TV taking about the situation in Cambodia and the need to care for the refugees.

    Mo said the conditions in the camp were terrible. People were so sick and desperate. Her family was lucky; they made it to the Philippines before finally, amazingly, settling in the United States.

    They settled in Oregon, the same state where Kathi lived. In Oregon, Mo's mom got a job as a cook. They began attending the First Christian Church, which had sponsored their move to the states.

    Really? Kathi thought. That was her church. She'd attended it for years.

    After a 20-minute conversation, Kathi came away amazed. This was such a serendipitous meeting. "It was total randomness," she said.

    But also, maybe it meant something. How could it not? There were too many coincidences. For Kathi, it was a God thing.

    "I just thought of all the people here in the Athens airport, I had this connection with this lady," Kathi said. 

    The capstone comment was when Mo said what her daughter planned to study ... nursing. Perhaps, some day, she could also travel the world and help refugees, people who through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes under threat of death.

    "I am sure the people from Laos and Cambodia felt pretty hopeless too," Kathi said, recalling how fortuitous the encounter was. "I shed a tear.” 

    On Aug. 6, Medical Teams International deployed its first team of primary health professionals to Greece. The doctor and nurse are providing care to refugees who have little and cannot return home.

  • Heartwarming local impact: Mobile Dental

    by Emily Crowe | Aug 02, 2016

    Your support is making an impact around the world - but it's changing lives locally, as well. Check out this heartwarming story from one of our mobile dental clinics.

    Dear MTI-

    Thank you very much for providing the Mobile Dental Van at Raleigh Park earlier this week. The 9 students (and families) you cared for are so grateful... I wanted to share one story in particular from the day that had a tremendous impact on me.

    We had 2 little brothers that came to the van with very significant dental problems that were causing both of them pain. The MTI dental team removed 4 infected and painful baby teeth from the younger brother and recommended future treatment for the other dental issues. His older brother also had significant dental issues; however he was too scared to allow the dentists to perform the work. The school principal and counselor were able to transport the younger brother home after his dental work, and had the opportunity to speak to his mother. They learned that the family immigrated to the United States just 1 month ago as refugees from Guatemala after her husband had passed away. She was incredibly thankful and grateful for the work and care provided by MTI.

    ...We were all impressed with the quality of care, compassion and kindness that was given to all of the kids to help them feel less frightened and more comfortable.

    On behalf of the Raleigh Park Staff, Volunteers and Parents....we thank you for all that you do! Thank you also to the donors who help make this program happen!! It is very much appreciated. We look forward to partnering again in the future!


    Leah and Patti

    A huge shoutout to the hard-working volunteers who work hard to make these mobile dental clinics possible, along with the partners, donors and supporters who make sure we have the tools and supplies to care for kids like these. Your support is making such an impact!
  • PHOTO UPDATE: South Sudan refugee crisis

    by Emily Crowe | Jul 29, 2016

    Uganda, South Sudan’s neighbor, is facing a massive influx of South Sudanese refugees. Over 90% are women and children. Mothers who've lost their homes are struggling to feed their infants. Orphaned children are at great risk of hunger and disease in overcrowded camps. So many need help - 10,000 people spent the night at one refugee center- far beyond its 1,000-person capacity.

    Without care, the situation could become much worse. Learn more about the South Sudan refugee crisis and what we're doing to help.

    A Medical Teams International staff person meets with refugees. 90% of refugees are women and children, and many children have lost family members or are orphaned.

    New arrivals from South Sudan. Malnutrition, malaria, women in labor, gunshot wounds, watery diarrhea (which can be deadly, especially for children, and hunger are some of the most pressing issues we are addressing.

    Health emergencies can have serious consequences in overcrowded camps. Medical care and resources are critical.

    Vaccines protect children from life-threatening diseases and help ensure healthier childhoods.

    A settlement for refugees before the massive influx - more tents, supplies and resources are needed to keep families safe.

  • Bringing in new life in an overcrowded camp

    by Emily Crowe | Jul 26, 2016

    They had to leave. Just five years after independence, fighting was breaking out again in South Sudan. So many had already been killed- or left with scars they could never forget. Home was no longer safe – even though the journey was dangerous. This time, Anita* wasn't only worried about herself - she had a three-year old son, her younger sister... and she was carrying twins.

    Anita and her family, now refugees in Uganda after fighting in South Sudan forced them from their home.

    It was her second pregnancy, but that didn't make this time any easier. Pregnancy is already a risky proposition in South Sudan - which until recently had the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Twins only made her pregnancy more dangerous… and what would she do if she went into labor on the road?

    At a critical time in her pregnancy, Anita had to make the journey to Uganda - with little to no access to prenatal care and an unpredictable future ahead. After a long and difficult trek, Anita crossed into Uganda with little assurance of whether her babies would survive – but relieved to finally be able to rest.

    Then… her labor pains started.

    Overcrowded refugee centers can present serious risks – flooding, inadequate shelter, risk of outbreaks, and insufficient supplies like food, medicine or clean water. One refugee center where we serve – which has 1,000 person capacity – was forced to carry 10,000 refugees like Anita overnight. Without medical care, this is a recipe for disaster.

    But, thankfully, your support was already hard at work keeping Anita safe.

    Anita's premature twins, safe and sound in an incubator. Thanks to you, they're receiving the care they need to stay healthy.

    When her labor began, Anita was quickly rushed to the nearby health center and met by a midwife who skillfully helped her through delivery. Soon, they were greeted by the sound of two newborn babies!

    However, this delivery had come early – both babies had low birth weights. Thankfully, this family was in good hands and were quickly transferred to the nearby hospital – a hospital you help run – for specialized care. Thanks to you, her babies are healthy—despite incredible odds. Without care, it’s very possible that this story would have an ending. On behalf of Anita, her two beautiful children, and everyone who’s being impacted by your support right now, thank you.

    One of the precious twins you are keeping safe, despite incredible odds.

    *Name changed.


    So many others like Anita need care. Fighting in South Sudan is forcing thousands of mothers like Anita to flee for safety – over 90% of refugees entering Uganda are women and children. Mothers around the world are at risk from war, poverty and disaster. We need your help to make sure life-saving care and supplies are accessible.