Israeli doctor ignores borders to serve those in poverty

A child in the Congo stands by layers of lava from separate volcanic eruptions in 1971 and 2002 that led to health care emergenciesDr. Mick Alkan of Ben-Gurion University Medical School in Beersheba, Israel, is a throwback in spirit to …

A child in the Congo stands by layers of lava from separate volcanic eruptions in 1971 and 2002 that led to health care emergenciesDr. Mick Alkan of Ben-Gurion University Medical School in Beersheba, Israel, is a throwback in spirit to an earlier time when doctors made house calls, only this family physician practices his bedside manner in Third World countries around the globe.

Alkan, who was born in Jerusalem in 1941, is the coordinator of an international health and medicine component in a joint M.D. program between Ben-Gurion’s medical school and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The curriculum focuses on treating infectious diseases and other health care problems facing the developing world with a strong emphasis on disaster relief and other emergencies.

The program began four years ago and has just graduated its first class of 32 students from about 20 different countries, including Syria, Iran and Tibet.

“We want our graduates to compete for jobs in the international arena, but we have to be realistic,” Alkan said. “I know one of them is going into family practice in New Mexico and another is working in the Bronx. But they have to pay off their student loans, so it’s probably not practical that they work for the (World Health Organization) in the Third World.”

But, if the program is falling a little short of its ideal of producing Albert Schweitzers, Alkan in many ways is making up for it through his service to the impoverished and needy through the Israeli government and on his own over the past 22 years.

Alkan began his career in world service at the age of 39 as head of an Israeli medical team at a camp for some of the 1.5 million refugees who were driven into Thailand by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Alkan’s team of 10 Israeli doctors and medics was responsible for a 1,200-bed field hospital inside the Thai border.

“This was when (Menachem) Begin was prime minister and he decided that the Cambodian refugee problem was about genocide and that was something that Jews had to fight,” Alkan said.

The missionary zeal that the Israeli team displayed galvanized his interest in helping the needy. And some of the situations and stories were hair-raising. One time a soldier was brought in shaking with malaria and, upon seeing the soldiers’ face, one of the camp’s Cambodian aides ran out of the room. The aide told him later that the soldier had killed 100 people from his village.

“We treated (the soldier) just the same as everyone else because that was what we were there to do, to relieve suffering,” Alkan said. “We had great esprit d’corps in those days with everyone fighting to get on the night shift and work the most hours.”

In recent years, Alkan has taken time out from his duties to participate in disaster relief missions, leading a field hospital for Kosovo refugees in Macedonia and providing emergency medical care following an earthquake in India in 2001 and after a major volcanic eruption in the Congo in February.

Alkan said he’s learned that the first thing to do on a disaster relief mission is to assess what the actual need is rather guess what the need is beforehand.

“The idea was to take medical supplies and open a clinic in the Congo, but after we visited 14 facilities and two hospitals we decided they didn’t need another clinic,” Alkan said. “We submitted a report recommending a measles vaccination campaign and received money from Israeli sources to carry it out.”

Alkan also serves as an advisor to medical school programs and community clinics in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal, India, Peru, and Greece as well as in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which were all part of the former Soviet Union. He began the relationships by making personal contacts with leaders of medical programs to give help and advice. He often follows it up by providing interns from the ranks of students in the Ben-Gurion-Columbia program.

Alkan pays his own way to these locations using research money and the schools and clinics provide for his needs when he gets there. Once on location, he often goes along with medical students to visit and treat patients in their homes and give advice on how to improve their methods of caregiving.

In the relationships with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, his team helped reform the medical training system left over from the Soviet Union by ridding it of its non-medical curriculum that once involved teaching Marxist theory, and replacing it with clinical courses that teach real medical skills.

“People (in the Third World) are resourceful, but they have nothing,” Alkan said. “We’re there to help correct the imbalance between their needs and the resources they can draw on.”