Dr. Gino Strada immediately lights up a cigarette as we sit down for the interview in one of the outdoor sofas near the pool at the Mr. C hotel. There's a weariness to his demeanor despite the relaxing atmosphere — as though he is carrying the world's problems on his shoulders. And in a sense, he has been for a long time.
For the past several years, Dr. Strada has been working as one of the cardiac surgeons at the Salam Centre in Khartoum, Sudan — one of the many hospitals built and run by the Italian NGO he founded, Emergency. Prior to that, he was the chief surgeon at Emergency hospitals in Rwanda, North Iraq and Afghanistan. And before that, he'd been a war surgeon all around the world, treating soldiers and civilians alike. No wonder he's feeling tired.
In town for the Oscars, Dr. Strada was invited for his part in the nominated documentary short, Open Heart, which followed eight Rwandan children with rheumatic heart disease to the Salam Centre, where they were operated on. (The film didn't win.) “To me, it was [a] strange experience. I'm not used to that kind of award [ceremony]. But, I don't know, I hope it's going to be useful somehow. Maybe not immediately but planting seeds. We'll see.”
Public awareness is key as Emergency is largely funded by relatively small private donations. “Our funds come from many, many people. I'm talking about, you know, half a million supporters who will contribute with their little money [of fifty or a hundred dollars]. So, it's a sort of diffuse fundraising. We don't have one big donor or one big sponsor who gives [us] two million every year,” Strada explains. But it would be hugely helpful if they did, considering the cost of one cardiac surgical operation is around ten thousand dollars.
In the documentary, we see the Emergency staff meeting with the president of Sudan, asking for the promised governmental contribution of five million dollars per year. Instead, President Omar al-Bashir (who, by the way, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur) proposes to build a private section or separate hospital for the rich and use the money earned there to fund the Salam Centre. Too bad that goes against the very core of what Emergency stands for. “I've heard that idea coming up from different authorities around the world, and I don't understand,” says Strada. “To me, using medicine as a way to make money is a nonsense.”
Clearly, no one in Emergency does what they do for the money. Administrative costs only account for less than seven percent of the total budget (which is about forty million dollars). And its origin speaks to an emotional reaction to a world filled with war rather than some type of business plan. “It's probably not by chance our organization is called Emergency and not Planning,” Strada jokes.
In reality, Emergency was started in response to the problems that Strada saw as a war surgeon, igniting an instinct within him to try and do his part in fixing them. Established in 1994, the first Emergency operation was in Iran during the genocide with a staff comprised of a small group of Strada, other professionals and his friends.
Nowadays, they have much more personnel on staff, but there's always a need for more. The average turnover is about three to six months, and it's a challenge to find people who are willing to stay for the longterm — not surprising, given that Emergency intentionally goes to war-torn countries where they are needed the most.
“It's very difficult not to get depressed. [The] temptation to say, 'Okay, I surrender,' you know, is a common experience. It's a daily experience,” Strada admits. “Sometimes, I'm tempted to say, 'Okay, I'm going to retire, and I'm going fishing.' But then when you operate on a child and you see him walking again… Or you operate on small children at the Salam Centre who come in with terminal conditions, and you see them running in the garden a month later. That will give you the strength and the energy to work again.”
Emergency has provided over five million victims of war and poverty with free, high quality medical care since it opened its doors. And Strada aims to continue expanding Emergency's activities with the hope that local authorities can take over the healthcare infrastructures Emergency establish and operate independently (with continued monitoring by Emergency). When I ask about his endgame for Emergency, he tells me, “The ultimate goal is to disappear, is to close Emergency [because] that would mean there is no more need for us… I know that's a dream. But that's the ultimate dream.”
To learn more about Emergency and how you can help, please go to their website, where you can also check out the trailer for Open Heart.