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Summer 1999
Mission to Heal
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Moved by a profound spirit of compassion and caring, UCLA doctors and nurses travel half a world away to render aid to Kosovo's dispossessed.
By Mona Gable

In a gray cement room that resembles a large prison cell, the artifacts of a family's life sit in plain view on a windowsill. There, laid out on a clean cloth, are a baby bottle, rubber nipples, a pair of nail scissors, cups, forks, baby shampoo, toothpaste, a bottle of Oil of Olay. That, a few clothes and a color photograph of a handsome couple in their 20s are all that's left.

There is no sink here. No toilet. The windows have bars, the flooring is cardboard. Ten people live in this airless, high-ceilinged cell, sleeping on metal cots jammed edge to edge. They may move to another location tomorrow. Or they may not. But for now, and in the foreseeable future, they are not going home. For these refugees driven from their homeland - Kosovo - across the rugged charcoal mountains to the north, existence has become a day-to-day affair. They have been forced to settled here with the few meager belongings they could save, in a grim, two-story, former veterinary clinic in the Albanian city of Shkoder near the border with Montenegro. In a few days or weeks, perhaps they will move on, maybe to a tent on the outskirts of the capital, Tirana. Or maybe not.

To this dreary place on a bright May morning have come Belinda Chan, a petite 31-year-old physician with a kind smile, and Susan Mortensen M.N. '87, an outgoing 47-year-old nurse practitioner and clinical director of nursing, both from UCLA Medical Center. They are members of a UCLA medical team that has joined with International Medical Corps (IMC) - a worldwide medical relief organization - to help provide medical care to the 700,000 Kosovar refugees in Albania. For a month now, IMC has been sending teams twice a week to Shkoder and 30 other destinations throughout this desperately poor land. Chan and Mortensen, along with a dozen colleagues, are among the first Westwood contingent to arrive. Another group will follow the next week.

This humanitarian effort was initiated by David Langness, UCLA's director of health sciences communications, shortly after NATO's air war against Yugoslavia began on March 24 and the horrifying tales of ethnic cleansing by Serbian military in Kosovo began trickling in. "I think, for me, the greatest sin is neutrality in the face of a moral crisis, and this is a moral crisis here," says Langness.

More than 90 doctors and nurses responded when Langness sent an e-mail proposing a relief mission to Albania. After receiving a list from the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees of the needs of the refugees, 26 medical professionals were selected and organized into two teams of 13. Three days before the first group -Team A - departs on May 20, everyone meets in a Center for the Health Sciences lecture hall to introduce themselves and talk about why they want to go "see the world as a little cell," says Sheryl Ross, a home-health nurse. "I don't see it with political borders. We only become the person we're meant to be when we step outside our own needs. By us going, the rest of the world will know that a small effort makes a difference."

"This is something I have wanted to do for a long time," says Mortensen. "I knew instantly that I wanted to go. I've been in Rwanda and Zaire as a traveler, but I always tried to go to all the clinics and hospitals I could. I kept wanting to help. It was like a miracle that this opportunity occurred. I want to work very hard to make a difference." Says Ashley Christiani, a resident in family practice at Santa


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