He confides that his trip to JFK last year was very painful. Eighteen of the kids he was taking care of died during his six-week stint. He felt helpless and frustrated. Kids just don't die like that at home he tells me, and they wouldn't have died in Liberia if there were more resources. If there was clean water for them to drink, and mosquito nets for them to sleep under.
Malaria is a virulent killer here. It can take a healthy child and push him to the brink of death in hours. Simple things kill in Liberia. Kids die from dehydration and malnutrition.
Until HEARTT got to JFK there was not one pediatrician in all of Liberia. Not one. Little wonder so many kids, especially kids under five, were dying. But slowly things are improving. Andy says in just a year he sees remarkable progress.
Dr. Torian Easterling, Andy's friend and colleague from the Global Health Program at Mt. Sinai, agrees. Torian brings another kind of gift to the JFK hospital. Andy's intensity is matched by Torian's compassion. Torian, too, is also about to finish his training at Mt. Sinai. Whip smart like Andy, his style is different. A lanky, easy-going charmer, over the course of four visits, Torian has formed deep bonds with both the staff and the patients at JFK. He tells me there is a spiritual aspect to this for him; he feels called to this work.
He tells me the story of a mother who sobbed in his arms on his last visit when the baby he fought so hard to save, died. Of the connection he feels to the people here. Global medicine, he explains, means seeing people, not borders. People with hopes and dreams who need doctors.
Raised in Newark, Torian decided early on that he wanted to practice medicine where "the need was greatest." I asked him about that… what about the gaping needs right at home? He paused. Ideally, he says, he'll split his time between Newark and the developing world. He knows first-hand the depth of the need in America, he tells me, but continues to feel the pull toward children in circumstances he sees as even more dire.
As dedicated as Andy and Torian are to providing front line medical care, they are also dedicated to their role as teachers. We follow them to a classroom, littered with broken chairs, where they are teaching a group of midwives a simple technique for helping babies breathe in what's called the "golden minute" after birth.
An estimated two million babies unable to breathe on their own, die right after birth, in what's called the "golden minute." In fact, nearly 2 out of 10 babies have trouble in that crucial minute, which isn't a problem if the birth attendant knows what to do, but is deadly, if they don't.
So Andy and Torian are teaching the simple technique developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It's an important lesson. Midwives deliver nearly all of the babies in Liberia. So this teaching session will have profound effect as these young women go back to their communities. It is moving to watch the students gain confidence as Andy and Torian slowly go over the steps… using baby mannequins ...again and again.
The hours are long at JFK, the heat intense, and the living circumstances are, as you might expect, rugged. Andy and Torian live in a dimly lit, simple concrete dorm on the hospital grounds. They say it is just fine with them. There are few escapes from grinding poverty and their sense of responsibility. How they are able to stay focused and upbeat is a bit of a mystery to me. But they do.
In truth I met several other doctors with the same dedication and passion on this trip: the extraordinary Mike Ward from the University of Chicago, the talented, Khoshal Latifzai from Yale, and an incredible young American nurse from Dr. Sirleaf's hospital in Bridgeport, Colleen Grady.
Each has chosen to come here. To battle back against disease and poverty as best they can. To give all they have, while making peace with their own limits. They do not seek the spotlight. In fact, they are uncomfortable in it. They would tell you they are just doing their jobs. I would tell you they are doing so much more. Bringing hope with the medicine. I say they are the best of America's exports. I say, let's give thanks for them.