Reflecting on EMERGENCY USA
Author: Eric Talbert
I began working with EMERGENCY USA in 2011 and when we first opened our office in San Francisco I was very excited. As a member of the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio of San Francisco, we were part of an intentional community of over 60 organizations working to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. EMERGENCY USA is the San Francisco-based office of the international humanitarian organization EMERGENCY, which was founded in 1994 in Milan, Italy.
Being based in the Bay Area has been great for EMERGENCY USA as we continue to build and grow here in the Unites States. Doing the work we do, being located in an old military hospital that is now a part of a national park, feels fitting. Over 6 million people worldwide have received high-quality free-of-charge medical and surgical care provided by EMERGENCY. This work is carried out in war-zones and post-conflicts areas, with the majority of people being treated in Afghanistan.
Our mission includes promoting a culture of peace, solidarity and respect for human rights domestically and internationally. EMERGENCY USA is made of mostly volunteers – from the board of directors to committees and grassroots groups around the country. As human rights advocates, local volunteers find or create opportunities to engage their communities in learning more about the realities our fellow civilians are facing in war-zones by sharing the stories of people who are treated and work at our hospitals worldwide.
We also recruit nurses, physicians and surgeons based in the US who have international and teaching experience, along with six months of availability, to work at our hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan and the Central African Republic. They also need at least three years of post-residency experience because part of their role is to help train local staff. Building this local capacity is key to achieving our goal of ultimately turning each medical facility over to the local community.
Our grassroots volunteers, located in major US cities and universities, are self-directed and supported by the office in San Francisco. The groups are made up of a wide variety people from dentists to teachers, but they all have shared values and want to do something to help provide direct medical support to people in need. The volunteers are each committed to and enjoy working together towards making the world a better place. They do what they can with the resources they have, coming up with inspiring ideas for new ways to help that are fueled by the passion in their hearts.
Once a year, all of the volunteers across the country work together in a combined effort to raise awareness and funds during our annual kite-flying event called “Under One Blue Sky” which takes place on or near September 21st – the International Day of Peace. Kite flying is a symbol of solidarity in honor of the cultural traditions of flying kites in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and the funds raised during this nationwide event support life-saving surgeries at our hospitals there.
Our hospital in Sierra Leone is located just south of the country’s capital city of Freetown (on Peninsula Road on the way to Lakka Beach for those who know the area). EMERGENCY built this surgical center during the decade-long civil war and fortunately the war ended a few months after the hospital opened. EMERGENCY focuses on providing surgery as the main goal of our hospitals since this provides the infrastructure and capacity needed to also effectively provide other services. For example, facilities built to provide vaccinations are unable to provide emergency room treatment or surgery, but a surgical center can provide emergency room treatment as well as vaccinations.
In Sierra Leone this meant that after a few years, the hospital was able to expand from two surgical operating rooms, an emergency room and wards with beds to include a pediatric clinic to meet the growing needs of the population. Since peace has returned to Sierra Leone, the medical services provided at our hospital have shifted from war-related injuries to traumatology with most surgeries being orthopedic due to broken bones from work- or vehicle-related accidents. While I was at this hospital, I met a young man who was walking to soccer practice when a truck ran into him and broke his ankle. Our hospital was able to treat him quickly and, once fully healed, he will be able to go back to playing with his friends.
Another common surgery performed at this hospital is for esophageal burns caused by accidental ingestion of caustic lye. Cases with this type of injury are common because many households use caustic lye as an ingredient to produce homemade soap. This ingredient in liquid form looks like milk and in crystal form looks like salt or sugar. As a result, it’s often children who are not old enough to read or understand the dangers that drink or ingest the lye, thinking it’s something else, which severely burns their throats. EMERGENCY has developed a special program to address this need and treat these types of injuries, which involves several follow-up treatments but is ultimately life-saving.
On this most recent visit I was able to bring a large suitcase of much-needed medical supplies including surgical gloves and gauze with me to Sierra Leone. That delivery was made possible by the generosity of our donors and through our partnership with a program at MedShare, located in the East Bay. Those supplies have made a tremendous difference in serving the patients in that hospital.
Now that I’m back in the office at EMERGENCY USA, I am again reminded how thankful I am to have the Bay Area as my base and the base for EMERGENCY in the US. Having moved out here after living in New York City for nearly a decade, it has been inspiring to see the growth of international development in the Bay Area. It’s been an honor to be able to connect with some of those brave souls who have been here from the beginning. It’s a wonderful community to be part of andI’ll continue to do what I can to foster its healthy growth. I’m exited for the future – for us here in the Bay Area and for those resilient patients recovering and being treated in our hospitals around the world.
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Eric Talbert is Executive Director of EMERGENCY USA. EMERGENCY provides high-standard medical and surgical care free-of-charge for civilians in some of the world’s most devastated and war-torn areas. Talbert is also a board member of the Development Executives Roundtable (DER), an advisor at the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism, and is the recipient of honors and awards, including the San Francisco Bay Area Young Nonprofit Professionals’ 2012 “Young Executive Director of the Year Award,” a BoardSource Leadership Forum Judith O’Connor Scholar and Emerging Leader, and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) College of Liberal Arts 2012 “Alumnus of the Year.”