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OpEd: Generous Americans

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Healing and empowering the sick and poor abroad


America has had an uneasy time in the halls of public opinion overseas. Based on media reports, it would seem that America's work in the world goes unappreciated and that the ''ugly American'' syndrome is ubiquitous. We take exception to the reporting of this perception. For us, the news is not that lopsided on the negative side.

What needs to be better reported, both here at home and abroad, is the work of American citizens who heal and empower the lives of the sick and the poor in the developing countries. There are thousands of stories of citizens working through nonprofit organizations and groups that bring relief and hope to hurting people every day. Their work should not be underestimated. It is a quiet yet powerful kind of work, for as the life of a single human being is transformed for the better, the ripple effect of that person touched by the hand of healing and kindness ultimately influences the perceptions of thousands in a lifetime.

With more than 125 million poverty-stricken children worldwide who suffer from debilitating physical conditions with little or no hope for a cure, an orthopedic surgeon (one of the writers of this commentary) and his wife, a registered nurse, decided in 1996 to build and operate teaching hospitals in the poorest countries to heal the lives of disabled children. This undertaking was named CURE International.

At hospitals opened in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic and Honduras, surgeries are performed on such disabilities as club foot, hydrocephalus (water on the brain), spina bifida, cleft lips and palates and post-polio complications. Every day sees work in spinal reconstruction, hip repairs, joint replacement and reconstruction, plastic and reconstructive hand surgery, tubercular spinal repair and neurosurgery.

In these parts of the world, there is little access to specialized medical care for the poor. Orthopedic surgeons are few or nonexistent. Gifted American and British doctors give of their time, sometimes for years, to render their much-needed skills to helping these children. They are paid pennies on the dollar compared to their remuneration at home. They also train indigenous doctors in modern medicine and surgery, encouraging them to remain in their own countries, so as to avoid a ''brain drain'' as too often occurs.

The motivation to build hospitals, bringing the best of First World medicine and doctors to specific locales, is based on the determination of need and viability; and is driven by the Christian call for unconditional love and compassion of our fellow humans.

There was nowhere to go for Michael Otara, a little boy who lived in the southern region of Sudan, where there has been a civil war and continuous armed fighting for years. At the tender age of one year, Michael suffered severe burns when he rolled from his bed into an open fireplace used for cooking. Brought by his brother to a refugee camp in Northern Kenya, after the brother had witnessed the butchering of members of their family, the two boys learned about CURE's AIC Bethany Crippled Children's Centre in Kijabe, Kenya and traveled two days by bus to reach it. There Michael underwent surgery and is currently healing. When he is completely healed, he will return to the refugee camp where he plans to go to school for the first time.

No reward is greater than the smile Michael beams back to his doctors. Michael's brother conveys an appreciation and gratitude with a depth of feeling that transcends the expression of mere words. He knows that his brother has not only been healed of his physical ailments, but that he has also been treated by people -- by Americans -- who have truly cared about him, and loved him, as a fellow human being of worth.

Multiply this case by hundreds and thousands each year, multiplied in turn by the ripple effect of those in their communities to whom they bring back their stories, and there is little doubt that Americans have rendered the kind of goodwill for themselves and their country that must and does make a deeply lasting impression on the human heart.

C. Scott Harrison, MD, is cofounder and CEO of Harrisburg-based CURE International. Dr. Robert H. Schuller is founder of The Crystal Cathedral based in Garden Grove, Calif.