[dehai-news] (Centre View, VA ) A Physician for Peace: Local doctor helps bring medical care to people in Eritrea.

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Thu Feb 05 2009 - 15:49:12 EST


A Physician for Peace
Local doctor helps bring medical care to people in Eritrea.

By Bonnie Hobbs
Thursday, February 05, 2009

Dr. Chris Walters has been a foot-and-ankle surgeon and podiatrist at Kaiser
Permanente in Fair Oaks for 18 years. But his care for others extends way
beyond the local area.

For the past three years, he's been a member of Physicians for Peace a
humanitarian, nonprofit organization that brings medical care, education,
training and supplies to developing nations all over the world.

PFP wants to build peace and international friendships in those nations with
unmet medical needs and scarce resources, and it regularly sends teams of
medical volunteers to places where they can help the most. In September,
Walters was on a team that went to Eritrea, in the northern horn of Africa,
and he's sharing his experiences with the local community for a particular

"I hope that, if someone reads this and it touches them, they'll contribute
to Physicians for Peace through the Web site, www.physiciansforpeace.org,
and that other physicians will volunteer to help, as well," said Walters.
"We pay our own expenses, so any money raised goes toward medical equipment
about 90 cents of every dollar goes toward the care."

He and his wife Bonnie have lived in Centreville's Virginia Run community
for two decades and have three children, daughter Lauren, 20 a junior at
Clemson University; and sons Peter, 16, a Westfield High junior, and Erik,
14, a Stone Middle eighth-grader. Walters did his residency at Inova Fairfax
Hospital and coached SYA house and travel soccer for 12 years.

HE BECAME involved with Norfolk-based PFP after talking with one of his
former Inova Fairfax resident, Dr. Keith Goss, now with Indian Health
Service in Arizona. Goss had just returned from his first trip to Eritrea in
spring 2006. "I said, 'I wish I'd known,'" said Walters, "and he said, 'You
can come in October ['06],' and I've been going ever since."

Eritrea has nearly 4 million people, and at least 1 million of them are
refugees displaced from other countries because of the 30-year civil war
with Ethiopia.

"So many of the people I took care of were injured in the war, or as a
result of land mines afterward," said Walters. "I operated on a boy from
Somalia and another from the Sudan. We try to send someone to Eritrea every
six months, and I go every year. This was my third time."

He uses his vacation time to do it and, most recently, he took two,
third-year residents from Inova Fairfax, Grant Beck and Annie Xu, with him.
They began their work in Eritrea by screening patients at the hospitals
"Some were pre-screened, to some degree, by doctors there to identify people
we could help," said Walters. "They referred, easily, 200 people, and I
examined each one, made plans for them and set up our surgery schedule for
the next two weeks. But there are always more patients to treat than they
have time for in their two-week visit, so they place them on the next
doctors' schedule.

"The first time I went there was really daunting getting used to the heat,
lack of sanitary conditions, flies, dust and Third World hospitals," said
Walters. "But you get used to it very quickly. And there were hundreds of
patients lined up, with an entourage of family members with them. I thought
they were there to see other team members some 35 different doctors and
nurses but they were all there for foot and ankle problems."

"My patients travel by foot, by camel and by bus the length of the country
to see us because their level of expectation is so high," he continued. "A
couple years ago, a guy walked 600 miles to get his arm straightened. And it
breaks your heart not to be able to see them all. Despite our willingness to
work from sunup to sundown, it would have been too much of a strain on the
small, local hospital which is a regional hospital and a trauma center, as

WALTERS SAID PATIENTS there have good outcomes and a low infection rate. "We
expect to see deformed limbs as a result of injuries sustained in the recent
civil war, as well as nerve damage, muscle atrophy and soft-tissue loss," he
said. "We also see a lot of malformed, short limbs from polio in both adults
and children."

He said this trip was somewhat unique in that the first 60 patients he
screened were all children the youngest, age 2. And he worked closely with
an Eritrean orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Semere (doctors just use first names
there), one of only three such surgeons for the entire nation of 4 million

Walters asked him where all the adults were, and Semere replied, "I know you
love children, so we sent them all to you." Among them were stage four polio
deformities, plus conditions that had gone untreated for years, leaving
their young victims severely deformed.

"For example, a 4-year-old boy from Somalia had untreated club feet and
couldn't stand," said Walters. "In the U.S., this is treated either as a
newborn or at 1 year."

He speaks some Tigrinye Eritrea's official language so he was able to
talk to the parents via a few interpreters. Said Walters: "The parents were
optimistic because we were their only hope."

Besides doing relief work, he said, "Physicians for Peace is interested in
the education and training of doctors, nurses and medical students for
sustainable efforts in their own countries." But sometimes, overwhelming
circumstances adversely affect what's actually possible.
They're been bringing medical supplies and teaching sophisticated
foot-and-ankle surgery to Dr. Semere. But one of Walters's most sobering
moments came during his second trip when he asked an orthopedic staff member
if Dr. Semere could use the new techniques and materials when the visiting
doctors weren't there. Said Walters: "Nurse Hanouk looked at me sadly and
said Dr. Semere was too busy dealing with trauma patients."
For instance, a 12-year-old boy was playing on a water wheel when it cycled
around and crushed his legs. One had to be amputated and, after six
surgeries, doctors were trying to save his other one.

STILL, PFP KEEPS trying. Each visit, Walters brings three bags of donated
medical supplies and leaves it all there. Between himself and Dr. Goss, said
Walters, "We've probably taken $1 million worth of American medical
equipment generously donated by its manufacturers."

He said the only pain relief for patients after surgeries is Tylenol. "I
went over there with a jar of Tylenol from Costco, and you would have
thought it was manna from heaven," said Walters. "I also take several cases
of antibiotics and anesthetics donated by Americares and Medical Bridges
nonprofit organizations that I count on."

He was in the capital city of Asmara at Halibet Hospital, and he called the
situation "clearly challenging." Said Walters: "The need is overwhelming and
the resources are extremely limited. If you need it, you'd better bring it.
You also need patience, flexibility and cultural awareness understanding
that people there are ecstatic to have us and are doing the best they can
with what they have."

Most satisfying, he said, is "if we've restored a child's ability to walk,
or walk without pain. For some girls, we've made them marriageable; and for
the boys, we've made them employable."

Although PFP isn't a faith-based organization, Walters said many of the
doctors are Christians and "we feel compelled" to volunteer in it. "We
clearly see the need and wish we could do it more often," he said. "Ten
percent of the world has 90 percent of the medical assets and 90 percent
of the world shares the other 10 percent. Eritrea is one of the poorest
countries on the continent and had the longest civil wars in that
continent's history."

The per-capita income is under $200 a year, but there's now a medical school
there and, said Walters, "Keith Goss and I hope to eventually establish a
permanent, limb-deformity center in Asmara that he and I would staff. And we
hope the medical residents we'd take there would feel inspired to come back
and serve. But all this would be made possible through generous donations of
medical equipment, supplies and funds and prayer."

Walters has also made many friends in Eritrea and, when he arrived this
time, a nurse named Fortuna hugged him and said, "Welcome home, Dr. Chris."
Now, he said, "It feels like part of my life; for me and others who work in
the Third World, some of our most meaningful experiences have been there.
And we know that, if not for us, nothing would get done because this country
has been pretty much ignored by the rest of the world including our own

Besides treating patients there, Walters also teaches the Eritrean doctors
and medical students and has grown fond of the people there. He says he's
just a "small part" of what happens there, but feels "blessed" to do his
part. "It's so rewarding; I get much more out of it than I give," he said.
"And Physicians for Peace is a great organization it makes it easy to do
this kind of work."

And sometimes, he gets help from home. "Because of my interest in soccer, I
usually take 20 or 30 deflated soccer balls and give them to the sports
federation there for the kids," said Walters. "So Sam Hoehn, a boy on my son
Peter's soccer team, made it his Eagle Scout project to collect soccer shoes
for the 3,000 or so kids in the city who play soccer barefoot or in sandals.
So in October, along with a shipment of medical supplies, Physicians for
Peace sent about 275 pairs of shoes there."

For more information or to help, see www.physiciansforpeace.org.

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