Emergency Medicine Fellows Assist Refugees in Greece

From BWH Bulletin 9/22/16 by Kim Hooper

For BWH International Emergency Medicine fellow Nirma D. Bustamante, MD, having the opportunity to travel to Greece to care for refugees is an experience she will always cherish.

Front row, second from left: Nirma Bustamante with other volunteers at a refugee camp in northern Greece.

“I had the privilege of caring for, and most importantly, getting to know the most incredible human beings,” said Bustamante, of the Division International Emergency Medicine and Humanitarian Programs in the Department of Emergency Medicine at BWH, which prepares leaders in global health and humanitarian response.

Earlier this month, Bustamante spent more than two weeks at a refugee camp in northern Greece, along with volunteers from Team Rubicon, which recruits, trains and deploys U.S. military veterans and health professionals to aid in disaster-response operations around the world. Bustamante provided primary and urgent care to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, developed care plans and helped patients access specialty care in the local community.

She was one of two BWH physicians who traveled to Greece via the fellowship. Over the course of the two-year program, clinicians develop skills in humanitarian aid and disaster response, emergency care systems development, health program administration and funding, human rights and more. They also must complete one emergency deployment, where they care for people forced from their homes due to a disaster or conflict. Before deploying, fellows receive specialized training in humanitarian and disaster response.

Bustamante said that while the refugees had experienced unimaginable suffering, she was struck by their positive outlook.

“Although I will be a tiny speck on their path to a better life, I, along with countless other volunteers, work every day so that this moment in time is positive and reminds them that intrinsic good still exists,” Bustamante said.

Thousands of refugees have fled to Greece to escape war and poverty, due to its close proximity to areas in crisis. Currently, 200 Syrian refugees live at the medical camp where Bustamante volunteered. The camp is expected to grow to about 800 people by the end of this year.

A former fellow herself, Stephanie Kayden, MD, MPH, chief of the Division of International Emergency Medicine and Humanitarian Programs and director of the International Emergency Medicine Fellowship, said it’s inspiring to speak with fellows once they return.

“Our fellows learn a lot about how to practice humanitarian medicine properly, as well as what happens if the job is done poorly,” Kayden said. “When they go out, they think they are going to learn new skills and become better clinicians—and they do—but I think the thing that surprises our fellows the most is how much of the care given by volunteers who lack specialized training falls short of international standards.”

Harveen Bergquist, MD, a BWH fellow who also deployed to Greece, arrived on Sept. 20 to assist the refugee camp with medical care. Bergquist says she feels a personal obligation to help others.

“I feel fortunate to have the training and departmental support to do just that,” she said. “My goal is simply to do my best to provide the quality medical care that all people deserve, while also helping to restore dignity and normalcy to people who have suffered tremendously.”