Nancy Aossey has had little time to sleep.
With devastation in South Asia still front-page news, the phones were ringing off the hook last week at the offices of International Medical Corps, the aid organization that Aossey has headed since 1986.
The Santa Monica-based group was already working in the Indonesian province of Sumatra when a massive earthquake triggered the tsunami struck on Dec. 26, so it was quickly able to put a team on the ground in some of the hardest hit areas.
Aossey has been directing the group’s response from her offices, focusing in on the urgent need for clean drinking water and sanitation.
Although the scope of the disaster is staggering, it’s familiar territory for the Iowa native, who has spent years traveling to some of the most dangerous and impoverished countries around the globe.
In fact, the International Medical Corps, founded in 1984 by a Los Angeles emergency room doctor, has sent workers to more than 40 countries. Its niche: providing health care services in high-risk countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Aside from providing direct health services, the group specializes in long-term training to build up local health care systems.
Question: So who are all these people calling in?
Answer: When there is an emergency and it hits the newspapers there is an outpouring of support. People call and they want to help. Often they want to make a donation. Sometimes they want to volunteer here in our offices and a lot of times they want to go overseas and volunteer. We talk to a lot of people during emergencies like this to see how we might use their assistance.
Q: Can you actually find a use for people off the street?
A: Some of the hardest people to find are people with good logistics experience, communications experience, administrative skills, finance skills, management skills. Those are tough skills to find, especially to ask people to work in a war zone or in a natural disaster. We do get a lot of health professionals who are interested and we put them through a process where we evaluate whether or not they are needed, how they might fit in the local culture and how much time can they spend in a particular country.
Q: Do these people have jobs?
A: Some are retired doctors. Some people are in the prime of their careers. We have a trauma surgeon in Kansas who will shut down his very lucrative (plastic surgery) practice. He will go overseas for a month or two and volunteer his time.
Q: Whom do you have in Indonesia right now?
A: We have 130 people on the ground. Many of them are local Indonesian health care professionals, people we have worked with for many, many years. We are communicating with them and sending them supplies. Indonesia is very large. We were working on several islands. We had a presence in Sumatra, but we were not in Banda Aceh.
Q: Are things as bad as the pictures make it seem?
A: Yes and probably worse. We are getting daily reports from our teams and they are witnessing major devastation entire villages gone, people in a state of shock. IMC will focus on what we think we can make the greatest impact.
Q: And what might that mean?
A: We will be focusing on securing the water supply, hygiene and sanitation. The water is contaminated. There is a need for water purification tablets. People do not have the right medicines. There are a number of injuries where the right antibiotics are not available. We are going to have to transport them in. We are looking at putting together mobile clinics, vehicles typically. IMC has experience with that. We are looking at trying to help put together health posts. We also will assist rescuers, providing body bags.
Q: Will this be your biggest disaster response ever?
A: I make it a point of never comparing suffering, but yes. We have been involved in a lot of significant disasters: genocide, ethnic cleansing. We have been there and seen it all. This one is unique in that it’s huge and sudden. Sometimes man-made disasters (such as civil wars) occur over a period of weeks or months. A number of workers lost family members and friends and are pitching in. Can you imagine how hard that would be?
Q: Are you seeing record donations like other groups?
A: So far we have raised about $1.2 million in private donations. It’s a record for this period of time. We’ve got it online, phone calls, checks. We have had people walk up to our office and drop a check on our desk. We have set our goal at $5 million.
Q: How can you make sure you are not duplicating efforts of other agencies?
A: We know everything that is being done on the ground. If we are in an area that is well covered we will set up in an area not well covered. A lot of the coordination is done in the field.
Q: Will you be going there yourself?
A: If I need to be there because I can help IMC I will go. I am very sensitive to the fact that when I travel somewhere I am taking up resources and people’s time.
Q: What have you done in some other situations?
A: In Mogadishu, Somalia in the early ’90s we were the first American-based organization to work there. It was complete anarchy: bombings, shootings, guns on the street. We saw people shooting at the heads of children as target practice. For a local infrastructure, we had doctors and nurses who stayed behind to help their people, but who had no experience with trauma. We took doctors who didn’t have a lot of trauma training and we gave them new surgical techniques.
Q: It sounds like you have seen some really grim stuff.
A: I’ve seen some very horrific stuff. In Somalia, security was so bad we actually had to have armed guards. There was this really nice, nice man that we worked with, his name was Jackson. We were at the airport. He came to watch us load up the airplane, and all of a sudden we hear these gunshots. I looked up and watched him die. A guy came up behind him with an AK-47 and shot him four times in the back. It was some kind of a blood feud.
Q: Doesn’t it haunt you?
A: Well, I am human. After Somalia, I did have nightmares for a long time. It’s tough. You try to separate what you see from what it is you need to do to get to work.
Q: What keeps you going?
A: I see the very, very worst side of human nature, truly evil, and I see the very, very best side. There is not a lot in between. In many of the countries where we work the leadership lies in the hands of people who care a lot about power and money.
Q: How did this organization get going?
A: The founder, Dr. Bob Simon, made the first trip into Afghanistan as a private citizen in 1982 and 1983 after it had been invaded by the Soviets. He noticed that all the relief organizations were on the border working in refugee camps and no American organizations were inside Afghanistan. So he sold his house in Malibu to raise $80,000 or $90,000 to found the organization. He still chairs our board.
Q: What did the organization do?
A: We started a medic training program that lasted nine months and taught lay Afghans how to treat 85 percent of the injuries and diseases that they saw. We sent them with supplies and they opened up clinics in their regions and they started providing medical services to the civilian population.
Q: You were there during the Taliban. How was that?
A: Tough, very tough. Scary too. Because Afghanistan is very tribal and to some extent the power centers are remote, there were certain areas in Afghanistan where we could operate a little bit more freely. We also had a very, very good strong local staff there.
Q: You were one of the first aid agencies into Iraq too. What’s it like there?
A: (She clinched her lips shut.)
Q: So mum’s the word?
A: It’s very bad. The security situation is very bad. We are carrying out programs in large part through working with our local Iraqi staff who are the unsung heroes.
Q: How many workers do you have there?
A: About 12 non-Iraqis. They are outside of Baghdad. They are spread through the north. We have over 1,000 Iraqis. They are doctors, nurses. We run a lot of nurse training programs. The nursing system was totally devastated when we went in. The problem is a lot of times they are targeted because they are working with international organizations, or just because they want to help their people. We worry a lot but we have managed.