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Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

February 21, 2017 5 comments

In the annals of unforgettable people I’ve interviewed and profiled, UNO’s retired director of Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Programs and Studies Tom Gouttierre ranks right up there. This is my new profile of him for the March 2017  issue of the New Horizons published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Look for it at newstands and for subscribers in your mailbox starting Feb. 27.

My first encounter with this irrepressible man came some 20 years ago and I’m still recovering from it. I mean that as a compliment.  You see, Tom fills up a room with not only his big frame and personality, but with the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his passion for things he cares about. Because he is a citizen of the world and considers his second home to be Afghanistan, where he lived and worked nearly a decade and that he made the center of his professional life,. he has an expansive view about things that you don’t run into every day. He’s seen things most of his fellow native born Americans haven’t.  That translates into him apprehending the world in terms most of us don’t or can’t because we don’t have his experience or expertise. He even shakes hands differently than most of us. He calls its an international handshake. His immersion with Afghanistan, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow, then as director of the Fulbright program in Kabul and finally as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he became an official ambassador to that country. He has many close friends who are Afghan. You can’t turn around in his Dundee home without seeing something from there. That first meeting I took with Tom was for a long interview I did to inform a cover profile I wrote about him and his love affair with Afghanistan. His affection for that nation and its people runs deep and it’s safe to say his thoughts are never far from there and them. The article I did all that time ago contrasted the veritable paradise that the peacetime Afghanistan was in the 1960s and early ’70 with the devastated shell the invading Soviets left it in. Like the millions of refugees who fled their homeland, Tom has despaired that his dream place has been so violently disrupted and shattered during three-plus decades of ongoing chaos, terror, violence and war. Like some of the Afghan people, he’s never stopped hoping and trying to do what he can to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure. His UNO Center conducted many education programs with Afghans in exile and with resident Afghans. Tom served as a top U.S. advisor on the country. He retired from UNO from 41 years but the center’s work continues and his personal interest in and connection to Afghanistan remains strong.

Here’s a link to that earler story I did about him–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-lost-dream-an-americans-afghan-odyssey/

 

 

 

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Tom Gouttierre

 

 

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the March 2017 issue of New Horizons

 

Life changing

On the surface, Tom Gouttierre led a parochial Midwest life growing up in post-World War Ii America. By the time he was at Bowling Green State, he expected a traditional, stateside education career awaited him. Little did he imagine the far-off places his work would eventually lead, first as a Peace Corps volunteer with wife Marylu, then as a Fulbright Fellow, and finally as longtime director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and dean of International Studies and Programs.

Gouttierre retired in 2015 after 41 years doing jobs he loved. His work brought him into contact with U.S. presidents, secretaries of state, ambassadors, generals, foreign leaders, geo-political intrigues and momentous events. But what he most enjoyed was interacting with International Studies students. Some came from all corners of the globe and others right from his own backyard.

“The thing driving me more than anything else was advising those International Studies majors – young Midwest kids very much like I was wanting to learn and work in the world,” he said. “I was so inspired regularly to be with these young dynamic students who wanted to do something, It was that more than any one thing that kept me working until age 75. That, and the fact that I’d step outside my door and be surrounded by students from all around the world.

“I had what I think most people who are interested in higher education and global affairs would have to be described as the dream job. I got to deal on a daily basis with hundreds of international students. They inform you even by their presence, they inform our students, they stimulate education. It’s really dynamic and so much fun.”

When Gouttierre came to UNO in 1974 after a decade of living and working in Afghanistan the university had fewer than two dozen international students and only one international program. When he left four decades later there were more than 2,000 international students and scores of programs.

The center’s work its first decade-and-a-half revolved around a donated archive comprising the largest collection of Afghan cultural material and documents outside its borders. The center’s role broadened after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the country in tatters and millions of Afghans in refugee camps, the center tasked itself with rebuilding that Central Asian nation’s education infrastructure. Meanwhile, UNO’s Intensive Language (ILUNO) program gave the University of Nebraska at Omaha a global presence as students from diverse nations came for intensive training. Gouttierre’s experience and expertise made him a go-to U.S. government advisor and media source. During his tenure, the center managed some $120 million in federal contracts and grants.

He was part of high-level, secret negotiations for the Soviet Union to exit Afghanistan after its failed invasion. He oversaw programs that trained hundreds of Afghan residents and refugees in learning English. public administration and advanced teaching skills. Some of those trained by UNO. either here or overseas, became key players in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Long before Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, he and Gouttiere knew each other. Another  close personal friend is current Afghan president Ashraf Ghani – a former student of Gouttiere’s. The American’s Dundee home is filled with artifacts from his and Marylu’s time there, including collections of rugs and mortars and pestles. Their home features arches reminiscent of Middle Eastern design and a solarium with a running fountain.

It’s ironic Gouttierre ended up being a citizen of the world because he barely left his native Ohio before age 25. In 1965 he took his first airplane trip anywhere – to Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. It was home to Tom and Marylu for may years, Adam, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, was born there, The country, the culture and the people fundamentally changed the course of Gouttierre’s life.

“I learned their language and culture to an uncommon degree and the reason I did is because i liked them so much,” said Gouttierre, who’s fluent in Dari. “I learned the language well enough to write poetry in their tongue and to have it published there.”

He went first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a Fulbright Fellow and eventually he headed the Fulbright Foundation there. He also coached amateur basketball teams, even the Afghan national men’s  team. He once enlisted the advice of the Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, on how to run his famous zone press. When the Afghan nationals upset the Chinese, Gouttierre got carried off the court by jubilant players and fans chanting, “Mr. Tom.”

His immersion was as deep and complete as possible for an outsider. His interest in and affection for the people has never wavered and has been reciprocated in kind.

“They’re so warm and receiving and supportive. Afghans are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life anywhere around the world and I’ve met wonderfully hospitable people In Japan and elsewhere. But Afghans, who have probably far fewer resources to extend in their hospitality, are heads and shoulders above everybody in their belief in their hospitality. Anybody who tries their language or knows their history is embraced by them and the more one knows these things the more one is drawn to learn more. I still enjoy that very much.”

“It’s important to know what the people are like.”

He admires the fierce, proud nature of Afghans who have famously taken up arms throughout history to repel enemy invaders in defense of their homeland and autonomy.

“They’re one of the most independent-minded people in the history of mankind. They defeated the British empire three times, they beat back the Soviet empire. They’re resilient.”

They’re also grateful to anyone who assists their aspirational dreams.

“Afghans would demonstrate and plead with the Ministry of Education to have Peace Corps volunteers teach them English in their schools.

They loved it. They were going through a democratic change at the time. They had a constitutional parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution that took control out of the military state. It was a remarkable thing that roughly coincided with the time I was there.”

 

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Tom Gouttiere holding his oldest son Adam in Afghanistan

 

 

Before and after

In more recent years, Afghans have sent teams of teachers and journalists to Omaha for intensive training. But progress is slow in this tortured era of terror attacks. Reconstruction needs are vast. Corruption, rampant. The nearly nonstop fighting of these last 30-plus years has left Afghanistan in tatters. The devastation and loss is a far cry from the veritable paradise Gouttierre once experienced there.

“When I lived there it was a dream place,” he said wistfully. “It was the ideal place to serve as a foreign service officer. I got to know the Afghans and I got to know them intimately. And I knew everybody because I was there 10 years and I coached basketball. It’s a small town country. So it was ideal.

“Female Peace Corps volunteers like my wife could bike anywhere all by themselves without any fear for security. In fact, the country was charged with protecting these Americans. There were messages on the radio saying, ‘These are our guests,’ all while radio Moscow from antennas in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) beamed in that we Peace Corps volunteers were handmaidens of the CIA.”

None of this seemed a likely landing spot for this child of 1950s mid-America. But beneath the cookie-cutter facade of muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roil lyrics and school proms Gouttierre pined for adventures far from home. He wasn’t sure how to make those yearnings reality until John F. Kennedy laid out a vision for the Peace Corps during his 1960 presidential campaign and encouraged young people to serve their country and the world in his 1961 inaugural address. The vision sparked a sense of wanderlust in Gouttierre that dovetailed with America looking beyond its shores to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.

Coming of age in Maumee, Ohio, Gouttierre followed his devoutly Catholic, hard-working Belgian-American family’s lead by going to church and cheering for their beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Detroit Tigers. His sports passion continues unabated today. He also follows Indiana and Creighton University basketball and UNO hockey. He’s a Mav season ticket-holder.

His father hailed from a long line of glass blowers but became a master baker. Tom worked in the family bakery from the time he was a boy and mastered the craft himself. Generations of Gouttierres emigrated to the States and Tom became enamored with his grandparents tales of the old country.

“I would constantly ask my grandparents and great grandparents about these things. I knew about Belgium. I was aware of the rest of the world. So I always had this interest.”

He studied maps and globes. He devoured books.

“I loved to read from The Book of Knowledge (children’s encyclopedia).

I was a curious kid. If I didn’t love sports i would have been a geek. We didn’t have geography bees but I would have loved to compete in them. I knew where the Zambezi River was and all these things.”

He loved foreign languages. One grandmother spoke only French. He went on to learn French. Latin, German, Russian and Dari.

None of his international experiences may have happened though if not for JFK’s clarion call to serve.

“I was 20 year-old college undergraduate when John Kennedy gave his address. It was THE momentous political moment in my life. Here was this rock star with a message drawing upon the angels of our nature, not the devils, that really appealed to the values Americans were feeling. It was revolutionary, too, because he was the new generation. He had just replaced one of the oldest presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower) we ever had. He was calling for this new frontier.”

JFK’s challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and to to the world – “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” – was a call to action Gouttierre couldn’t ignore.

“It was a tremendous opportunity. Marylu and I were dating then. It really inspired us. I went into grad school, I graduated and we went into the Peace Corps as a married couple. My passions were driven and still are by that particular message. It’s the greatest generational message any American leader has given other than FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who took us out of hell with “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and Lincoln who implored us to behave “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”

“I am forever indebted to the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program.”

 

Tom GouttierrePeace Corps volunteers at a 1965 event outside a Kabul orphanage. Tom Gouttierre and wife Marylu are in the background along with Omaha educator Howard Faber.

 

 

A new era

Gouttierre said new U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to build walls and ban immigrants is “so insular” by comparison.

He said Trump’s executive order travel ban has only inflamed immigration fears and frustrations.

“People are up in arms over immigration but Congress does nothing. What Trump has done through executive order is bring a tension. I don’t think his order was well-advised and I don’t think the content of it was appropriate to the task. The other thing I’m concerned about is that this kind of decision hurts our long-term trade and other political and cooperative relationships we have with numbers of these countries. We need the collaboration of many of them to help track down and vet individuals.

“What we need to have is improved vetting – there’s no question about that. I don’t think the vetting process now, though not totally unsuccessful, is as efficient and sufficient as it needs to be. It’s

chronically underfunded, understaffed and just not able to keep up with the demands.”

He said another unfortunate result of the ban will be the adverse effect it has on international student populations around the United States.

He favors rigorous trade negotiations that benefit America, but fears  too hard a line might touch off trade wars that prove harmful.

“There’s all kinds of things we do we’re not going to be able to do or afford if we have trade wars,” he said. “We’ve got to think what this is going to do to our personal economies and our relationships with colleague nations and trading partners. We’re able to have the good life in Nebraska as we call it because Nebraska markets abroad.”

Among the many challenges Trump faces, he said.is is putting together an effective cabinet team that can help him effectively govern.

“Frankly, his team isn’t all that bad. They may think differently than I do, butt they’re all quality individuals.”

Regarding what Trump’s foreign policy looks like, Gouttierre said, “He’s somewhat of a blank canvas. We don’t know yet. He appears to be an individual who doesn’t create policy based on policy study or things of that nature. He hasn’t yet shown that. But he has indicated he wants to keep the U.S. strong and there’s no way we can keep the U.S. strong and not continue to be concerned with how the events in Afghanistan have an impact on our interests in that region of the world.”

For going on two decades American lives and resources have poured into Afghanistan to fight terrorists who’ve used that country as a staging ground and safe harbor. Every day Afghans want the terrorists out. The average Afghani gladly accepts America’s help in restoring the country to normalcy. But they warily watch for any signs American commitment is wavering. It’s happened before.

“Ashraf Ghani and President Trump have had a conversation and they both pronounced it as having gone well,” Gouttierre said. “We’ll see. I think at this stage most Afghans are just hanging loose. Believe me, Afghans at the common citizen level have a keen knowledge and focus about what’s going on in the United States than a great number of Americans because they know what happens here has major impact on their lives and their future.”

Gouttierre feels America’s relationship with Afghanistan has mostly been positive and well-received in each country.

“I think most Americans were very supportive of everything we were doing in Afghanistan after 9/11. They were also supportive before that when the Soviets invaded the country and we gave the Afghans weapons to resist them.”

UNO’s Afghanistan center took a lead role in educating the nation.

“Our center had funds to teach Afghan refugees, who number in the millions in Pakistan. After 9/11, the same thing – our center helped reopen the Ministry of Education and we prinedt books, supplied schools and trained teachers.

“We had an intimate relationship.”

By UNO bringing Afghans here over so many years, he said, a real understanding of that nation and its people developed.

.”In Nebraska we probably have a higher percentage per capita knowledge of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan than any other part of our country.”

Visiting Afghan teachers, for example. participated in programs in Omaha, Lincoln and host cities across the state.

“Nebraskans knew about them because they were seeing them and meeting them and loved them and developed intense relationships with them, so there were these good feelings.”

 

Different strokes

Relations between the nations changed once the war on terror began.

“Things started to kind of deteriorate after the invasion of Iraq” and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said. “People say the war in Afghanistan is our longest war. I really resent that. It is not accurate historically. The longest by far and away was the Cold War. It required us to be intense and focused throughout in our competition with the Soviets and the Chinese. Nearly 50 years we had that.

“This is not a war against Afghanistan, it’s a war within Afghanistan

that’s a part of the greater global war against terrorism. Like the Cold War, it’s ideologically-driven and it’s going to take a solid long-term commitment to deal with it and put it out. It’s not going to just go away.

It’s going to require taxes. The biggest mistake George W. Bush made after going into Iraq was that he tried to run that war without taxing. You can’t have a war without taxes. And what did it do? It broke our national banks and we wound up with 2008 (recession).”

Afghanistan being a battleground in the war on terror, he said,

“unfortunately has infused a negative opinion about our experiences there.” He added, “Quite frankly, most of the enemies we’re fighting are in Pakistan. They go back and forth. It’s not the Afghan people.

Well, some of them. But that’s not the war – the war is against terrorism, Al Qaeda, Isis.”

The U.S. wouldn’t even be in Afghanistan militarily if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t sought refuge and established terror training camps there.

“Now we’re in this situation which is unfortunate,” he said. “They’re our closest allies in that whole region. They really want us there. Think about it. How many of the other countries really want us?”

Gouttierre rues America abandoning Afghanistan after it’s remarkable defeat of the Soviets.

“What happened was in ’89 we dumped Afghanistan. The Soviets had left and then the USSR collapsed. Then every nefarious group in the world went into a country which had no governmental structure, so it became the dump for all the drugs. When Marylu and I lived there we never saw a field under cultivation with opium poppies. That’s all post-Soviet invasion.”

Bin Laden was among those who exploited the vacuum of power.

“He went there to fight the Soviets like a great many else did, then he went home to Saudi Arabia, where he was a citizen. although his family was originally Yemeni. They’re a very successful family worth billions of dollars. When Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi government and said, ‘Let me bring my Afghan Arabs,’ meaning those who fought against the Soviets, ‘and we’ll drive Iraqi forces out.’  On the other hand, there was the whole United Nations coalition and Saudi Arabia went with that.

“A disgruntled Bin Laden went public about the corruption of the Saudi government and monarchy, calling them the handmaidens of the West.

He was very vocal about this and he got kicked out and his passport taken away. He fled to Sudan. The Saudis put pressure on the Sudanese to kick him out, so he went where he knew – back to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. That was in 1996. He went to Afghanistan because there was no government there. He was allowed and welcomed by the Tallbs.

“He arrived just a few weeks before I did as a member of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan.. I was the senior political affairs advisor for that mission based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to bring the Taliban and the Northern Alliance together. The Pakistanis were constantly trying to undermine it, so it didn’t happen. They were supporting the Taliban.”

In his advisor role Gouttierre was tasked with building profiles on Bin Laden and the Taliban.

“These were both things about which i didn’t know much because they were new dynamics.”

He soon learned they posed a dangerous threat with clear intentions on attacking America.

Gouttierre never met Bin Laden but he did see his caravan pass through a Kandihar bazaar.

“I was walking in Kandahar and all of a sudden the bazaar went silent and there was a small convoy of SUVs that went through and everybody chanted, ‘Osama, Osama, Osama.’ Everybody knew who he was because he was putting money into Afghanistan. He had billions to do that. So I didn’t see him eye-to-eye but I saw his presence. That’s as close as I got.”

Gouttierre feels the U.S. hung Afghanistan out to dry after the Afghans drove out the Soviets,

“We switched administrations – we went from Reagan to Bush I. He and his secretary of state, James Baker, “saw great opportunity with the collapsing of the Soviet Union to ensure Russia would not come back as the Soviet Union again. That’s what their focus was. What Afghanistan needed, which I think it deserved, was some type of Marshall Plan. They were our allies fighting against the Soviet Union.

We owed them. They’re the ones that died.”

He said America’s failure to have a cohesive policy concerning Afghanistan and its fate proved costly.

“We didn’t understand how this would come back and bite us. We owed the Afghans something. That country was left in total destruction.

We talk about the tremendous refugee crisis now in Syria  Why?

Because they’re going to Europe and they’re coming back to us.

Afghanistan had 7 million of its citizens outside of the country. There were 5 million in Pakistan, another 2.5 million in Iran. They lost over a million people in the war with the Soviets. We’ve forgotten that. Our memories are very short.

“So what happened? It came back and bit us in the butt. We dumped them and 12 years later we had 9/11.”

He suggests much of the chaos could have been prevented.

“We didn’t help the Afghans reconstruct their infrastructure. There were a lot of refugees in Pakistan and Iran who could have come back and helped to put something together. When we did start to help after 9/11, we blew it. We spend a lot of money and want immediate results. What does that bring? It brings mistakes, corruption, lost money.

The U.S. had $20 billion unaccounted for. Nobody knows where it is.

“The whole Muslim world was watching how we did it and we really messed it up. Now were trying to help the Afghans build out from under the mess our chaotic approach of throwing money and demanding quick results produced.”
Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Parween Arghandaywal pronounces words during English class at the University of Nebraska Omaha for visiting Afghan teachers in 2002. (©Omaha World-Herald Photo by Bill Batson)

 

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson, used by permission)

Afghan women arrived in Omaha under the sponsorship of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Saleemah, a teacher from Kabul and wearing a scarf is hugged by Masuma Basheer, an employee of America West Airlines in Omaha and a formerly from Afghanistan. (©Omaha World-Herald photo by Bill Batson)

 

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Tom Gouttierre conferring UNO honorary status on Hamid Karzai during the then-Afghan president’s visit to Omaha

 

Finding an unlikely home for pursuits and passions

Gouttierre made Nebraska a haven for Afghans but he nearly didn’t come here himself. He was running the Fulbright Foundation overseas when he and Center for Afghanistan Studies founder Chris Jung, whose father was part of an Indiana University team in Afghanistan, began doing exchange programs. Then Jung died and UNO courted Gouttierre to take the open post. He told UNO officials no three times. He finally went to a trusted mentor, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Theodore Eliot, who told him, ‘fI they offered me that job, I’d leave this job and take it.” Are you kidding me?” Gouttiere asked.

Eliot laid it out for him:  “You love afghanistan, you love international education exchange – this is your way to go back to the United States.”

“I thought about it,” Gouttierre said, “and on April 1, 1974 I sent a cable to the head of the search committee that read, ‘This is no April Fool’s joke…I accept. I’ll report 1st of August.'”

Upon their arrival, the Gouttierres were struck by the welcome extended them and by the support that helped the center and international studies and programs rapidly grow.

“There was such an interest, such an enthusiasm in Omaha, more than we could have expected. It was really something we could have only dreamed for, hoped for,” Gouttierre said.

Under the leadership of chancellors Ronald Roskens and his successor Del Weber UNO caught the nascent wave of globalization. The university went from having a limited international presence to being a national leader in global engagement.

“Our whole experience here from the very beginning was overwhelmingly positive. It never ended and it still hasn’t. There was real receptivity and that’s what made it so wonderful.”

Sister University relationships were formed. The intensive language program, he said, “took UNO’s name all around the world. People came to Omaha, Nebraska to study intensive English. When I got here in ’74 the challenge was to get people to come to Omaha, Nebraska. We didn’t have agriculture. We didn’t have dorms. Well, we started an intensive English language program and it became one of the largest, most highly regarded ones in the Midwest. We became a leader.”

Former UNO chancellor Del Weber said, “Tom took a fledgling program and built it into an outstanding Center for Afghanistan Studies and International Studies known throughout the country. He combined a deep intellectual knowledge of the MIddle East with an on-site practical understanding of Afghanistan, Forty-one years ago few in Omaha would have known how to spell Afghanistan yet find its place on a map. It was a forgotten county. Countless Nebraskans are now well informed. That is no rare feat.”

Introducing his adopted state to the country that adopted him and that captured his heart has been satisfying. Being part of the inner workings to get the Soviets out was stimulating. His last trip to Afghanistan was in 2014 and he hopes to return again.

He’s grateful for the support subsequent UNO administrators continued showing the center and international studies and programs. He’s appreciative, too, of the strong team around him that made extensive travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Washington D.C., for example. possible. UNO’s partnerships with Kabul University are particularly close and varied, including a journalism exchange program between faculty and students from each institution.

Weber marvels at what Gouttierre wrought.

“I admire Tom for his grasp of the Middle East and Afghanistan, his sharp focus and his single-minded emphasis on that area. All of his time, effort and knowledge was given to building that program he was brought to build at UNO. He stood up for it, fought for it and succeeded in making a superb program known nationally and internationally.”

Weber got to see Gouttierre in action on some overseas trips they made together.

“My many travels with him told me much about his work. He was a man who knew how to play and work hard. On one of our trips to Pakistan we convinced the American consul In Islamabad to permit us to go into Kabul for a short trip to see our school programs in-person. The consul told us if we ran into any problems we were on our own as the U.S. government  would not provide any assistance.

“We stayed with the minister of protocol, who insisted I sleep in his bed. As I crawled in, I felt a pistol under the pillow. Since there was no electricity, I gingerly put the pistol on the floor. In the morning I discovered it was loaded. He told me no one in Kabul was without his pistol in bed. We went to the airport to catch a Red Cross airplane back to Islamabad only to discover it had been grounded due to shelling at the airport. Again we stayed with the minister. That night in the city under siege was a long one. I wondered if we would ever get back.”

Even as Gouttierre’s profile increased and opportunities to go elsewhere emerged, he said, “I never, ever considered leaving Omaha. I love being in Omaha. The luckiest break of my life was to say yes to come to UNO and Omaha in 1974.”

His cozy ties to the U.S. State Department aroused suspicions in some quarters he was a CIA operative but he flatly denies it. While he did get push-back from some colleagues, he said most UNO faculty and staff expressed support, as did alums and the Omaha community, for the center’s work. No student protests raised objections.

“In all the speeches I’ve given, and I’ve given so many, I’ve never had anybody ask a question or make a comment that was motivated by a sense of meanness. I had people disagree with me, but that’s alright –I like that, I like to have discussion and debate.”

 

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Tom Gouttierre relaxing at home

 

 

Stepping back and moving on

Though he clearly found his calling, Gouttierre said he always looked forward to retirement. He only worked as long as he did because he enjoyed his job. Now he’s enjoying that long anticipated retirement.

“My intent was to do more of the things I love to do with family and friends and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

He’s taking his family to Lakeland, Florida to cheer on the Tigers at spring training. He said a day doesn’t go by without he and his sons exchanging texts or emails about the club.

His love of fine dining, cooking, reading, conversation, movies and tinkering around the house keeps him plenty busy.

Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his joy tinged with sadness affinity for Afghanistan is omnipresent. That place is so very far away, yet reminders of it are everywhere in his life and home. The feelings and memories always near.

“I’ll never be able to set aside Afghanistan. That’s a passion of a unique nature. I learned so much about life by having the opportunity to live among them, broadening my horizons, enriching my appreciation of other peoples, languages, cultures. I gained greater appreciation of our country by having the chance to live abroad – the best kind of comparative education.

“These opportunities have made me a better informed and more sensitive person and appreciative of the many breaks i have had.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Children’s Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico


It seeems as though every year or so now I get an assignment to write about a medical mission team from Omaha that travels beyond borders to deliver care. In this Journeys story for Metro Magazine I write about the trips led by Dr. James Hammel and his team to the peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California and the city of La Paz, where life saving operations are done on infants and toddlers.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine, including my story, at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

 

Hearts and Minds: Dr. James Hammel Leads Omaha Childrens Hospital Team Beyond Borders to Repair Heart Defects in Young Patients in La Paz, Mexico 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

The peninsula Mexican state of Baja Sur California is a tourist draw for its ocean-front beaches and vistas. But isolation from the Mexican mainland makes it hard for residents to access specialized medical care. Poor residents lack the means to travel, much less afford treatment. A lack of pediatric heart services results in many congenital defects going unevaluated and undiagnosed. Consequently, many children die before getting an opportunity to be treated.

To bridge that care gap Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr. James Hammel twice a year leads a medical mission trip to the southern city of La Paz in that Mexican state. He and his all Children’s Hospital & Medical Center team were there in November and they’re back again this April.

Before starting the La Paz trips four years ago, Hammel was a veteran of medical missions to Honduras and Nicaragua. His work in Mexico grew out of a collaborative with a Sioux Falls, S.D. health center that received children cancer patients from Big Sur through the Los Cabos Children’s Foundation based on the peninsula. Foundation founder Tom Walsh is from South Dakota. Children sent to Sioux Falls who presented heart problems then came to Omaha for treatment.

When a boy named Mario died before ever making it to a Chidlren’s operating room, Hammel resolved to provide care in Southern Baja in order to circumvent the delays that result in such needless tragedy.

 

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.” – Dr. James Hammel

 

“It was obvious to me he’d been turned away again and again and again,” Hammel says. “His mother was very sweet and she had taken him repeatedly across to the mainland and sort of begged for surgery from one of the centers there. But they just couldn’t get it. That case firmly cemented my commitment to this charitable foundation and when the opportunity did arise to work down there that seemed like a lot better option than bringing people up.

“Bringing kids up is very expensive, cumbersome, difficult. It takes a long time and it’s only possible to do in very small numbers. I thought. Well, for the same amount of money we could treat a dozen children there by bringing our team down.”

Hammel leads some 20 medical professionals, most specializing in critical care, on each 10-day trip. They’ve instituted many firsts there.

“Before we went down for our first trip there was no pediatric cardiologist in that state of Mexico, there was no cardiac surgeon, adult or pediatric. There had never been an open heart operation performed there historically. There was no intensive care unit team either, And there obviously was no familiarity with doing heart surgery, so we were really pioneering something there.”

He brings intensive care doctors, children’s pediatric intensive care nurses, a perfusionist to run the heart-lung bypass pump, cardiac anesthesiologists, operating room nurses and a surgical assistant. Everyone volunteers their time. Their care is entirely free to families.

 

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful. I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.” – Dr. Bridget Norton

 

It’s taken awhile to build trust with local leaders but a permanent program is now in the works.

“Little by little the administration of the hospital we’re working in and the government health ministry and the state government began to take an interest in the possibility of making an ongoing program. That’s when my goals took their last maturational step,” Hammel says. “We’ve been back every six months for a total of six missions and we’ve operated on 68 children – some with simple diseases but some with very complicated heart defects. Mostly they’ve done fine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some children require multiple surgeries.

“My goal is to establish a new cardiac treatment program to be a permanent part of that state’s health care system. In all of Mexico there are about 11 pediatric cardiac surgery programs and eight are located in Mexico City itself, thus the distribution of this resource is really poor and access is really limited. There are probably 18,000 children born in Mexico with heart defects every year and probably only about 3,600 corrective operations and catheter procedures performed. So, nearly 80 percent of the children with heart defects likely die, It’s a really big unmet need in the country.”

His goal is to help the Mexicans “build a viable, self-sustaining program that goes on treating these children when we’re not there and even after we stop coming.” He adds, “We have recruited to the state two pediatric cardiologists, a pediatric intensive care doctor and the first cardiac surgeon in the state. We have trained a group of pediatric intensive care nurses in special techniques for cardiac intensive care nursing. We trained the operating room staff.”

Before it can be self-sustaining, he says a “critical mass of manpower” is needed. Progress to get there is being made.

“It’s a gradual thing. This last summer the program performed its first open heart operation without us being there. They have performed a larger number of non-open heart cardiac cases, simpler cases, so they’re beginning to get going.”

He expects the program to reach a major milestone in 2016.

“When we get the program fully accredited by the Mexican federal government the hospital system can begin to receive some reimbursement for each case they do. It amounts to about $6,000 or $7,000 per case, but we can do it for that. It’s going to take a little more investment for needed supplies before we get to that point.

“In the meantime, we go and we do a dozen cases twice a year and that’s wonderful. It’s a great thing for the children we treat and their families, but it’s not enough. I would estimate there are about 60 children born in this state of Southern Baja a year with critical heart defects who need an operation, so we’re not reaching all of them.”

 

“The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”  – Shannon Hoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s created a nonprofit, Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts, to coordinate the medical care and logistics of the trips. It partners with the Los Cabos foundation. Children’s may soon be formally involved.

“Our hospital administration has seen the positive effect this kind of work has on our staff as far as their resourcefulness, their creativity, their career satisfaction. It’s something that really brings us together

and that has real tangible benefits in terms of our ability to do our job with excellence. I think Children’s is coming to see this work as a two-way street with great benefit to the people there and to our patients and staff here.”

Dr. Bridget Norton, a Specialist in Pediatric Critical Care Medicine, has been on all but one La Paz mission. She says it’s a “team-building” experience for both her and her fellow professionals who go.

“We make relationships and connections and friendships with colleagues we wouldn’t necessarily make without that experience.”

Many things Children’s does in Omaha, such as blood conservation and comfort med administration, have come out of what the team’s learned to improvise with in resource-poor La Paz.

Norton says the trips put in perspective the gifts she and her mates have to give.

“What we do is a calling, a passion, it’s what we love to do, but it is a job and you don’t always appreciate and grasp the enormity of what you’re able to do until you give it to somebody for free. What we give down there is something nobody in the United States will ever appreciate the way the people in La Paz do. I cannot over-stress the amazing feeling you get when you save the life of a child whose family has tried every avenue and lost hope and then you do that for them and they are so grateful.

“I can’t imagine not doing this work. I’m in it for the long haul.”

Perfusionist Joe Deptula, who’s made multiple Central American mission trips with Hammel, says the work is about “being able to give back.”

Shannon Hoy, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), has made many mission trips herself. She sums up the La Paz mission as “a great experience,” adding, “The trip has evolved and the camaraderie has become much more important and never more so than last trip when the kids were much sicker.”

The team can’t forget a patient named Oscar.

“Oscar came to us with a very serious congenital heart defect, which was previously operated on during a different trip,” Hammel says. “Due to his age and heart defects, his heart had sustained a lot of wear and tear and we were unsure how well he would do despite the repair.”

When the team left for home his vitals looked good. Then a fire in the unit forced a patient evacuation. His lines were cut and he expired off the meds. News of his death hit the team hard as he’d twice beat the odds only to lose his life anyway.

Most operations are scheduled in advance but families often show up unexpectedly with a sick child. The parents of a 6-month-old named Derek drove hours to reach La Paz, where the team found the baby so fragile they simply admitted him for observation without a single line or anything started lest the trauma prove too much. The boy’s surgery the next morning went well and today he’s totally repaired and healthy.

The life-and-death surgeries and the intense emotions take their toll.

“You are exhausted and not just physically,” Norton says. “It’s hard work and we work long hours. We do overnights in the hospital. But it’s also emotionally draining. You just have a lot of feelings and emotions you work through.”

Once back home, some decompression is necessary. Thoughts of La Paz, however, are never far from Children’s team members’ minds. Not only do patients and families leave an imprint, but so do staff.

“We’re like family,” Norton says of her team and the Mexican team they work alongside. Collaboration is vital to the program’s success. “They’ve been amazing and are on-board with the mission. We really couldn’t do anything we do without them – all the support services they provide, the hoops they jump through, taking care of the equipment we leave down there. Any blip that comes up, they handle it.”

Los Cabos foundation former executive director Greg Edwards now heads Abriendo Corazones – Opening Hearts with Dr. Hammel. He says building the program has inherently high stakes and complexities because it’s critical care. Since that care is largely delivered by Omaha specialists, much coordination and navigation is required. These specialists not only practice their healing arts in La Paz but impart expertise there. Locals also travel to Omaha for training.

“The support of Dr. Hammel’s team and friendships that exist at Children’s has been essential for this to happen,” Edwards says. “You cannot have a cardiac program without intensive care. Building a pediatric cardiac care program is no small task. It has meant creating relationships with Mexican officials. recruiting qualified staff, turning the surgeries into not only life-saving operations but a training theater for the local Mexican medical staff, creating a pipeline for medical supplies needed for the surgeries and intensive care from Omaha to Baja.

“It really is a huge undertaking.”

Abriendo Corazones accepts donations to support its efforts at strengthening hearts. Contact Dr. Hammel at 402-955-4360.

For more on the trips, visit http://www.loscaboschildren.org/donate/.

Leo Adam Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford in Africa

October 14, 2015 2 comments

Leo Adam Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford, in Africa

This is the first time i’ve posted the stories I wrote about my travels to Africa with boxing champ Terence “Bud’ Crawford just as they appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/). The publisher and editor generously allotted several pages to this rather epic spread highlighting various facets of the two-week trip to Uganda and Rwanda.

NOTE: As originally presented for publication in metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY August 2015 edition.

©by Leo Adam Biga

BTW: My blog features many other stories I’ve written about Crawford.

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AFRICA TALES VIDEO SLIDESHOW

August 7, 2015 Leave a comment

AFRICA TALES VIDEO SLIDESHOW
Here is a video slideshow of the June trip I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with The Champ, Terence Crawford, and Alindra I PersonJamie Fox NolletteScott KatskeeJoseph Sutter and Julia Brown. The visuals were edited, set to music, given movement and in some cases captioned by my friend Victoria White, an Omaha filmmaker.

NOTE: I am available to make public presentations about the trip and the video slideshow will be a part of the talk that I give. We will be updating the video slideshow with new images to keep it fresh and to represent different aspects of the experience we had in those developing nations.

My stories about the trip can be accessed at-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=africa

All my stories about Terence Crawford can be found at-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=crawford

UNO makes it public: I’m going to Africa with The Champ as a 2015 winner of the Andy Award for International Journalism

May 21, 2015 2 comments

Here is the official UNO announcment of the 2015 winners of the Andy Award for International Journalism: Matthew Hansen of the Omaha World-Herald and yours truly. Matthew’s going to Cuba to explore Nebraska’s historic connections to Cuba and where that relationship will go in light of restoration of normalized relations and the lift of travel bans. I’m going to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha and a cadre of other Omahans to shed light on the efforts of Nebraskans and others in responding to needs in those nations and lessons learned there that can be applied here.

For more about my trip, link to-

https://leoadambiga.com/going-to-africa-with-the-champ-two-time-world-boxing-championterence-crawford-hail-the-omaha-conquering-hero-and-his-b-b-boxing-academy/

UNO Announces 2015 Winners of Andy Award for International Journalism

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OMAHA – The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) announced today the latest winners of the Andy Award for international journalism.

Named in honor of former Omaha World-Herald Publisher Harold W. Andersen, the annual award funds new international reporting projects proposed by Nebraska-based journalists and news organizations.

This year’s winners are Omaha World-Herald journalist Matthew Hansen and freelance journalist Leo Adam Biga.

Hansen will travel to Cuba to explore its historic connections to Nebraska and how the relationship will blossom as travel and trade bans are lifted after 53 years. The resulting editorial piece will give Omaha World-Herald readers a window into Cuba: its culture, history, struggles, and future.

Biga’s travels will take him to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa, with former world lightweight boxing champion and newly crowned welterweight champion, Terrence Crawford, and Pipeline Worldwide co-founder, Jamie Nollette. The group will visit projects building fresh water wells and growing food, while meeting with aid workers and those affected by years of genocide and hunger. The group plans to travel to Africa in June 2015 and Biga’s resulting story will be published in Omaha Metro Magazine’s “Journeys” series.

“We are excited to be able to award two exceptional journalists this year,” said Tom Gouttierre, Dean of International Studies and Programs and chair of the Andy Award committee. “Both stories will show readers that there are connections between Nebraska and Rwanda, Nebraska and Cuba, and that international collaboration, or the absence of it, has a real impact on a country and its people.

Matthew Hansen 

Leo Adam Biga 
The Andy Award has honored Nebraska’s best international reporting since 1987. For the past 12 years, winners have received monetary awards, thanks to the generosity of Harold and Marian Andersen. The award committee accepts proposals to fund future reporting projects as a way to encourage more international journalism. This year’s awards are $5,000 each.

Applications for the 2016 Andy Awards will be accepted in Fall 2016. The competition is open to Nebraska-based news organizations – print, broadcast, and online – as well as freelance reporters.

More information is available at http://world.unomaha.edu/andy.php or by contacting UNO’s International Studies and Programs, 402.554.2376.

Past Winners of the Andy Award for international journalism:

2014    Julie Cornell and Andrew Ozaki, KETV Newswatch 7
2011    Joseph Morton, Alyssa Schukar, Matthew Hansen and Cate Folsom, Omaha World-Herald
2009    Carol Katzman, The Jewish Press
2008    KIOS-FM Radio
2005    Ted Kirk and Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2004    Jared Hart and Gary Sadlemyer, KFAB Radio
2003    Joe Duggan, Catherine Huddle and Ken Blackbird, Lincoln Journal Star
2002    Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2002    Charles Reinken, Omaha World-Herald

2001    Scott Bauer and Nati Harnik, Associated Press
2001    Stephen Buttry and Kiley Christian Cruse, Omaha World-Herald

2000    Angela Heywood-Bible and Ted Kirk, Lincoln Journal Star;
2000    UNO Television

1999    David C. Kotok, Omaha World-Herald
1998    Jeff Carney, Robert Nelson and Rick Ruggles, Omaha World-Herald
1997    Charley and Norma Najacht, Custer County Chief
1997    Henry Trysla, South Sioux City Star

1996    Dewaine and Bobbie Gahan, Oakland Independent and Lyons Mirror-Sun
1996    Jeff Bundy and Jason Gertzen, Omaha World-Herald

1995    Stephen Kent, The Catholic Voice
1994    Bill Eddy, Lincoln Journal
1993    Kay Lavene, Kearney Hub
1992    Bob Reeves, Lincoln Star
1991    Mary Williams, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1990    Steve Jordan, Omaha World-Herald
1989    Loretta Carroll, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1988    Ken Campbell, Scottsbluff Star Herald
1987    Harold W. Andersen, Omaha World-Herald

About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.

UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention work: Giving the gift of sight to the world

March 17, 2015 Leave a comment

There was a chance of me going to Nepal in February to accompany Omaha ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Feilmeir and a team of doctors and residents who perform hundreds of eye surgeries there, mostly to remove cataracts.  I met the good doctor preparing this story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) and when I informed him of my interest in doing some international reporting he and his wife Jessica, who does development work for the Global Blindness Prevention Division he heads up at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, encouraged me to join the winter trip he was leading to that Himalyan land.  In  applying for an international journalism grant offered by my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I proposed making one or the other of two trips: traveling with that medical mission team to Nepal or going to Africa with world lightweight boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha.  I had no real expectation of getting the grant, which goes by the name The Andy Award.  As it turned out, I did get it but it was awarded too late for me to join the group going to Nepal.  However, I will be traveling to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa in June.  Much more to come on that.  For now, read about the good works of Feilmeier and Co. in giving the gift of sight to people who otherwise would either remain blind or go blind.

 

UNMC makes international eye care a priority through Global Blindness Prevention Work

Giving the gift of sight to the world

Global medical missions and fellowships making a difference

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

It is no play on words to say the leaders of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Blindness Prevention Division and its professional home, the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute, share a big vision.

The personnel behind these endeavors want nothing less than to create an army of well-trained international eye physicians to retain addressing preventable blindness around the world.

This cadre of care is already providing international ophthalmology training and surgical opportunities to a next generation of eye physicians. Teams of medical students, residents and physicians are going to remote places and giving the gift of sight to hundreds of patients during weeks-long medical mission trips to developing nations on different continents. Global Blindness Prevention Fellows are spending a year or more overseas learning how to deal with complex vision problems, training local eye medical professionals and performing life-altering procedures.

In some instances eye physicians from the developing world are coming to Omaha for advanced training and clinical research unavailable in their home countries.

Taken together, this international focus is extending its reach wherever people are in need.

 

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Returning sight and much more

For the Omaha ophthalmologists leading this charge, making a difference beyond borders brings personal and professional satisfaction. Dr. Michael Feilmeier, medical director of the Global Blindness Prevention Division, was a fourth year medical student at UNMC when he got his first international ophthalmology experience. He’d already had his eyes opened to the “incredible need throughout the world for well-trained health care providers” on trips to Nicaragua and Belize. But his passion for global blindness prevention was stoked when he joined the Himalayan Cataract Project of Dr. Geoffrey Tabin.

He spent several weeks in Nepal assisting Tabin and his team give sight to people who’d hiked in from long distances. Over and over again he witnessed people’s lives changed by a short, inexpensive procedure that saw people come in blind and walk out sighted.
The impact of it all, Feilmeier says, “hit me like a lightning bolt.”

“When you take the patient’s patch off after surgery they just kind of light up,” he says. “This person who was previously maybe an empty shell of themselves kind of fills up and comes back to life. So for me it was like, This is it, this is how I want to spend a major part of my career.”

There and on subsequent trips to Haiti he’s observed parents regain sight and thus be able to see their children for the first time and he’s witnessed children’s lives turned around by sight restoring surgery.

“Being a parent I understand that joy of parents seeing their child or having their child get the health care they need. Those are the stories that resonate most with me. You could put together an amazing book of stories of the life changing transformations of people undergoing cataract surgery. We always ask patients the question, ‘What are you going to do now that your sight’s restored?’ It’s amazing the way people respond. The overwhelming majority say, ‘I want to work, I want to contribute.'”

Gaining a new perpspective
The experiences, Feilmeier says, “changed me a great deal,” adding, “We all have these pivotal moments in our lives and going to Nepal was one. It really changed the course of my life forever. It changed the trajectory of my life at a very young age and I’m grateful for that. It changed my perspective in a lot of ways.

“Obviously it makes you appreciative of what you have. It makes you realize your problems are so small relatively speaking to the problems of the majority of people who live in the world.”

Feilmeier’s wife Jessica accompanied him on trips to Nepal, Ghana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and their experiences overseas compelled them to form the Division in 2011 with the help of donations. She’s development director for the Division.

“I was struck by here’s this major component of human suffering that we haven’t cured that costs about 20 dollars and can be done in about 5 minutes and can be taken anywhere in the world,” Michael Feilmeier says.

“I always knew I was fortunate to grow up in the U.S., but never realized how truly blessed I was compared to the rest of the world,” Jessica says. “I never knew the conditions that individuals living needlessly blind faced each day and the knowledge I gained from witnessing their struggles to complete the simple tasks we take for granted: walk unassisted to a bathroom, navigate across a busy street or meet the gaze of a laughing child changed me in the most profound way. I came to understand my true capacity in terms of what I could be doing personally and professionally to see that as few people as possible lived their lives in needless darkness.”

A broadened perspective is exactly what Dr. Quan Nguyen, professor and chair of opthalmology and director of the Truhlsen Eye Institute, endorses. He and his physician wife, Diana Do, came here from Johns Hopkins University with years of international medical travel behind them. Do serves as vice chair for education at the Institute.

Nguyen says, “We as physicians should recognize when we treat patients the care of the patient not only depends on the surgical-medical skills of the physician but also on the ability to incorporate the social-economic needs of the patient in order to achieve a successful outcome. I think that is the most valuable lesson for our residents, trainees and fellows when they travel like this. I truly believe the most important experience of traveling like this is to be able to gain additional perspective of what other people need so we can serve them.

“Yes, they will also have opportunities to operate on a number of patients and to enhance their own surgical skills but I think the most important aspect, which I hope is a lifetime experience for them, is to recognize and remember what the people there value and need. Then when they return home they can be advocates to help these people.”

Global reach
The ongoing program aligned perfectly with the arrival of Nguyen and his expanded vision for the Department of Opthalmology by way of the international mission he’s put in place at the Truhlsen Eye Institute, which opened last year. A large photographic mural entitled “The Gift of Sight” in the center’s lobby dramatically expresses that global reach and the work being done by entities and individuals to prevent blindness. It pictures patients whose sight was restored and physicians who performed the surgeries.

“In the past. global eye care has never been a focus of the department,” Nguyen says. “The Truhlsen Eye Institute was founded on the basis of not only serving the citizens of Neb. but patients from every corner of the world with the best possible eye care. To do so we must first demonstrate our expertise and our mission in education to bring people over and to train them.

“We would like to make it a place that serves patients wherever they live in the world. Whether it’s global or local, our goal is to preserve vision, prevent blindness and restore sight to people of different economic and social backgrounds.”

UNMC is doing that in several ways, One is by sending teams to high-need areas where they can directly benefit individual patients through what Feilmeier’s calls “blitzes” of intense, concentrated surgical visits.

Nguyen says, “We are at the same time training eye physicians and surgeons who can continue with our mission long after we have left a specific country because we know it is not possible for just a group of physicians and surgeons from Omaha to be able to prevent blindness across the globe or even in one country, So we know that as part of our mission teaching is very important to be able to train the next generation of surgeons and eye physicians to carry on the work.

“We look for how do we spread the disciples from the Truhlsen Eye Institute in Omaha across the globe.”

A blitz may also impact underserved populations right in our own backyard. For example, the Division regularly provides eye services to Native Americans in Omaha.

Collaboration with local partners is key to ensure high quality eye care continues after visiting teams leave. Before a team ever arrives, locals get the word out about their coming and do screenings.

“Your success in a country depends not upon how much you want to do there and how much money you have, it’s who your local partners are,” Michael Feilmeier says. “So we continue to search for good in-country local partners – young, motivated people who work together as a team and who have good skill sets. We’ve found those in all of the places we’ve worked so far. We’re really fortunate.”

 

Paying it forward
Feilmeier wanted to create a vehicle for aspiring or emerging eye care physicians to have the same experiences he did overseas and thus the Global Blindness Prevention Division came about.

“We work with people at different levels in their training,” Feilmeier says. “For medical students we’ve developed a one-month rotation similar to what I did. We arrange everything for them for their experience in Nepal. They spend a month in Kathmandu. They’re mostly observing and feeding off the experience.

“In residency we take the third-year residents for one or two weeks abroad to actually engage in screening the patients, doing the surgery and being part of the whole process. Our two fellowship programs are for people who have graduated from residency. They spend a full year or a full two years working abroad. So at different points in the training process we can engage people.”

For Feilmeier, it’s paying forward his own eye-opening experiences.

“I look at the opportunity someone gave me to engage in this kind of work and how it changed my life forever. My main focus is becoming more about engaging other people and making it easy for them to have an opportunity like that themselves because it will have the same impact on everybody who gets a chance to experience it. It will influence their life and career.

“I’ve never met a single person who did a medical mission who didn’t want to do another one. Then you think about the ripple effect that those people have and all of a sudden you have this army of people who are aware of this problem and who care about this problem and who are actively engaged in dealing with it and finding solutions.”

Count Dr. Shane Havens a member of that army. As a senior resident he went to Cap-Hatien, Haiti in 2013 as part of a team led by Feilmeier.

He had one “touching experience” after another with patients overjoyed at getting their sight. back.

“A lot of times it gives them their life back.”

Feilmeier says, “It’s just really remarkable the amount of faith the patients put in the whole process and the emotional transition and transformation of patients and their family – seeing people laugh and dance and cry.”

Or in the case of one young man who regained his sight at the hands of Feilmeier and Havens, picking up his two surgeons in celebration.

Aside from the emotions elicited, Haven says a mission “offers you invaluable, unparalleled training experiences in the operating room and clinic you just cant get from a textbook or any training program,” adding, “I think the skill set it takes to manage the mature or complex cataract we see there really benefits the patients we treat back here.”

On these trips, Feilmeier says, “you really get out of your comfort zone in a new environment and you really test the limits of your abilities. You learn to have a new set of tools in your tool box. The most beneficial surgical training I have is when I’m sort of tested and I don’t have everything I’m used to having.” It means adapting to rough conditions, even operating by flashlight when electricity and generators go out.

Havens says opthalmology is “a ready-made speciality” for international medical service “because it’s one of the few where you can go for a trip of a week or two weeks and maximize your clinical experience and leave a lasting impact.”

Feilmeier feels the earlier people have these international experiences the better.

“We want to make a difference early on in careers. I think that’s probably the most impact we can have. I could sit at the scope 13 hours a day and do thousands of cataracts but ultimately I think it’s far more impactful when you engage young people. It’s about having that experience and feeling it in your heart and soul.”

 

 

Fellows and funders
The Global Blindness Prevention Fellowships are unique. The newest is in partnership with Orbis International, an NGO dedicated to saving sight worldwide.

“There’s been two Fellows thus far,” he says. “Starting next year we’ll hopefully have two per year, maybe even three per year, all working full-time in developing nations. The two-year fellowship with Orbis will be started July 2015. With that one we’re trying to groom some of the next generation of leaders in public health and global eye care. Fellows get a certificate in public health after completing it. They spend five months with us and seven months on the Orbis Flying Hospital – a fully functional, state-of-the-art operating theater – and they travel around the world for a year. It’s just sort of the next level of being involved from a global standpoint

“We want the Fellows to see things they’ve never read about, they’ve never dreamed of seeing. We want them to expand their skill sets and to experience things they would never see here in the U.S.”

Nguyen says it’s the only fellowship of its kind in the world. He and Feilmeier say there’s strong interest in both fellowships from applicants around the country.

Sustaining these international efforts requires financial support. The Global Division is an unfunded arm of UNMC, therefore the Feilmeiers work hard to find donors. Two fundraisers help. The annual Bike for Sight charity ride in April is growing in popularity. A Night for Sight celebrates the life-changing work of these global initiatives. The Oct. 25 event staged a Masquerade Ball for guests.

The Feilmeiers volunteer their time with the Division, covering all their own hard costs (food, travel, lodging) in order to give 100 percent of donated funds to curing blindness.

“We’ve made a pledge that for every $20 we receive, the cost of the consumables, we will give one free surgery to someone living needlessly blind and fortunately the community of Omaha has supported us and donated generously, which has allowed us to perform 1,000 free surgeries to date,” Jessica Feilmeier says.

“Our overall goal would be some type of endowment with naming rights to the Division,” Michael Feilmeier says. “If we could come up with a million to a million and a half dollars in endowment that would secure what we want to do over the course of time. We want to provide eye care to people who desperately need it, assist in training opportunities for international ophthalmologists in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia or Haiti to enhance their skills. And we want to provide these opportunities to medical students, residents and fellows because it’s expensive to get involved in this type of work and you never want that to be a limiting factor.”

The next Bike for Sight is April 25. Follow UNMC’s global eye care efforts and events at http://www.unmc.edu/eye/international.htm.

U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation


When President Barack Obama announced plans for the United States to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba the news reverberated throughout the world.  The two nations were once friends but have officially and often tangibly been antagonists and flat-out enemies for decades due to Cold War tensions that found them on opposite sides of the doctrinal divide.  Their respective governments have remained bitter foes despite the passage of time and despite the fact the two countries are geographically close neighbors with shared history, culture, and interests.  The prospect of letting bygones be bygones has deep import for people with a vested interest, personal and/or professional, in seeing relations renewed.  Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is one of those people. He’s not Cuban but he’s made the study of Cuba, where he’s traveled extensively, a big part of his academic career.  He’s a strong advocate for the U.S.-Cuba letting go of the past and finding a way forward together.  Lazaro Spindola is another person for whom the prospect of renewed relations means a, lot but this native of Cuba is cautious and downright skeptical when it comes to trusting Cuba to live up to its part of any diplomatic measures that encourage cooperation and reconiliation.  My El Perico story was originally published a couple months ago in the flush of this international development.  The piece provides a micro look at a loggershead issue that may finally move beyond vitriol and impasse to a sustainable, quid-pro-quo relationship based on mutual respect.  Only time will tell.
U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

 

President Barack Obama’s announcement the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba holds promise for healing between conflicting nations that were once friends.

Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the United States and Cuba have tread a cycle of acrimony and treachery. These Cold War antagonists became distant enemies despite their close proximity. In response to perceived human rights abuses, America enacted economic sanctions that blocked commerce. Cuba retaliated by jailing dissidents and expelling “undesirables.”

An American embargo cut-off a much-prized Cuban export to the U.S. – cigars (except those smuggled in) – and denied Cubans U.S. goods and investments. Cuban exiles bitter over losing land and businesses to Fidel Castro’s communist regime generally oppose U.S. concessions. However, most Cuban-Americans support the countries doing business together, says University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. Neb.’s small exile community reflects the idealogical-generational divide among this population, with many younger, liberal Cubans favoring restored relations and many older, conservative Cubans resisting it.

Stalemate critics have long contended the countries share too many mutual interests to not have full relations. Benjamin-Alvarado lauded the intermediary role Pope Francis and the Vatican played in bringing the two sides together for diplomatic talks that broke the impasse.

Renewal of natural geopolitical-cultural-historic ties may signal a move past angry rhetoric and punitive policy to find conditional avenues for resuming free travel and trade. It won’t come easy, though.

“The fact is we didn’t have to become the type of enemies we were, but we have been, and so that’s going to take some work,” Benjamin-Alvarado says. “This is a clear indicator to me it’s always been possible and that it’s been a choice we’ve made as opposed to something we couldn’t avoid.”

 

He echoes Obama in saying this new approach is an admission that America’s policy of isolating and economically strangling Cuba failed and that Cuba’s made positive changes.

“Cuba’s changed remarkably in the last 20 years. They’ve transitioned from Fidel to Raul, they’ve reintroduced private property and the ability of individuals to serve as owners of small businesses, they’ve given people more economic independence. Does that mean they’re going to have more political freedoms and liberties? I’m not exactly sure…but the fact is change is afoot, and I think by making changes in tandem with the Cubans we’ll begin to see that happening.”

Nebraska Latino American Commission executive director Lazaro Spindola is a skeptic.

“Diplomacy will obviously have a better chance with this new approach,” says Spindola, who was born in Cuba and fled with his family in 1961 at age 9. “On the other hand, free trade is a very arbitrary definition, and all I see is free flow of American dollars to Cuba – by way of remittances or purchasing Cuban goods. As far as free travel, I see the same one-sided approach of free travel from the United States to Cuba but not from Cuba to the U.S.”

He’s willing to support restored relations “provided there is a mutual concession of benefits that favor the Cuban people,” adding, “”If the Cuban government is willing to yield some ground, I would be willing to meet halfway. Compromise is the base of democracy.”

Some view Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners as a sign it is serious about doing the right thing. Spindola cautions that regimes like Cuba’s “have a knack for softening or hardening relations with other countries depending on their political convenience.” He fears renewed trade might provide Cuba “with an injection of resources and energy that could further delay positive reforms.”

He and Benjamin-Alvarado agree renewed trade with Cuba could benefit the Neb. ag industry, though Spindola questions Cuba’s capacity to live up to its end of any deals.

What happens going forward, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “is a dance” where each side looks to the other for concessions.

“At the end of the day it’s going to have play out through Congress, The Cuban government, in order to have full normalization of relations with the United States, has to right now subject itself, unless the law changes, to certain provisions of U.S. law contained in the Helms-Burton Act. It says essentially the Castro brothers have to be out of the government, there have to be free and fair elections, there must be a free and open market economy and other requirements must be met.

“I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon and so that will slow the process of a full normalization, but there is still a lot of room the Cubans could operate under in order to facilitate trade.”

Meanwhile, Obama may use executive action to speed things along as ambassadors lay the groundwork for more exchanges.

“The president will have the ability to kind of tailor certain interactions,” he says, “Having embassies where we can have an actual voice and opportunity to directly interact on an ongoing basis will help to establish a baseline and foundation for better relations across the board.”

Finding a new normal falls to new leadership in 2017, when Raul Castro is to step down and Obama’s elected successor takes office. Benjamin-Alvarado says whoever inherits this reunification needs to proceed in a fair and bilateral way.

“It’s going to take a lot more for them to trust us. I mean, we’ve been trying to screw them for the last 54 years and now all of a sudden we’re friends. I think that trust is a combination of confidence and reliability. But it will take time. They have to have confidence in us we’re going to be an honest broker with them, that just as they’re going to be transparent we’re going to be transparent, and that we’re going to be above board and open in our objectives and not try to undermine and engage in subterfuge as we have.

“It has to be an organic process generated by both sides so there isn’t one dictating to the other. It’s going to have to be a measured, step-by-step process that allows both sides to become comfortable with how they function and operate and to develop confidence over time.”

Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s traveled extensively in Cuba and plans going again in the spring, says he will measure progress “by the extent to which the Cubans begin engaging formal U.S. government bodies like the Department of Commerce and the Department of State,” adding, “It’s going to depend on how do we get each other on board and accustomed to how each of us does business, not only in terms of actual trade, but the areas in which we begin to relate to one another as regional partners and neighbors.”

Sports fans like Benjamin-Alvarado also can’t help but wonder what thawed relations might mean for the deep pool of baseball, boxing and track talent in Cuba, many of whose best athletes have defected.

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