Dr. Joshua B. Weil
Dr. Joshua Weil W-79 and his group of doctors just returned from Sri Lanka after providing medical relief to many of the tsunami victims and their families. I had the opportunity to talk with him via e-mail regarding his recent experience.
How would you describe your SEA experience? Has anything from that experience stayed with you throughout this time?
My time in Woods Hole and on board Westward for W-79 still ranks as one of my fondest memories. I felt so at home. Even though it's been almost 20 years and I've not really kept in touch with anyone except Steve Rader, I still feel bonded to my classmates. I've been very excited for all the growth SEA has experienced and the (now not so) new campus. But there was something very special about having classes in the basement of the whaling church and staying in Thompson House and Little House. I still get little pangs regret when I remember how Terry Hayward (then 1st mate) told me in my final evaluation that he was certain my life would be on the sea. It hasn't really worked out that way (yet), but I get to the sea whenever I can, and that's where I feel most comfortable. My time with SEA has never left me.
Describe the medical program you were involved in/how you got involved in going to Sri Lanka?
Immediately following the Tsunami, a large number of Kaiser physicians and staff contacted the higher ups about mounting a relief effort. Though we had no prior experience in international relief efforts, the Permenente Medical Group (physicians affiliated with Northern California Kaiser) decided it was the right thing. Besides donating a very large amount of money, they organized rotating groups of physicians with various backgrounds and skills. The plan was to have an ongoing project in Sri Lanka for a year that would include direct patient care in the field as well as efforts to work with some of the under-resourced hospitals to develop long-term projects for improvement. There was also a second group of physicians sent to Indonesia to work on mosquito abatement and malaria programs. I was part of the 4th group to go to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, during our time the civil war violence escalated and the project was terminated (at least our direct presence) while the 5th team was there.
How many doctors went over with you?
Four total - myself (emergency medicine and administrator), an OB/gyn, an internist, and a psychiatrist.
What were some expectations/reservations you had prior to leaving?
I actually expected to work harder. I had visions of working 12-16 hour days seeing hundreds of patients. That didn't really happen and much of my time was spent chasing moving targets when it came to governmental oversight. My primary reservations were in being so far away from my family for such a long period, especially given the history of violence in the area. Fortunately technology today can really make you feel like you're just next door!
What did you take away from this experience (life lessons)?
I think I'm still assimilating the experiences. It was gratifying to help and to share in the culture of others. We were welcomed warmly. I also thought a lot about situations much closer to home that are just as bad as in far away third-world countries. They deserve relief efforts, too.
Any advice on how others can help this situation?
Money helps, of course, but doesn't always get where it needs to go. I think a lot of the future challenges in Sri Lanka will revolve around infra-structure. For those with experience in building and engineering there would be ample opportunities. I wonder, too, where the US role lies when it comes to brokering peace in Sri Lanka.