Mother Teresa with American volunteers and Albanian counterparts on the final day of the mission. (photo: CNEWA files)
The frequent scene was one of exited crowds surging around the gates of a medical compound in Tirana, and many simply wanted to confirm what their own doctors had already told them. By the reports of it, they seemed to be grasping for any kind of contact with the outside world.
This is something of the state of affairs in Albania, decidedly one of the most isolated nations in the world. Until recently, it was the only officially atheistic state in the world. No sooner were bans on religious practice lifted than the people both Muslim and Christian began worshipping openly or relearning their practices. Mother Teresa, a native Albanian best known for her work among the poor of India, was quick to answer the call of her countrymen. She has made inroads throughout the Albanian countryside and made it possible for others to come and help.
In response to Mother Teresas personal appeal, John Cardinal OConnor, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, asked the organization to organize and fund a mission to administer direct medical care and to assess the health needs of Albania. In mid-July, Sister Kathryn Callahan, C.S.C., the Associations director of program services, accompanied a team for a week-and-a-half long stay in Tirana. The volunteer members were from the New York Medical College and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and they included four doctors specializing in pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, ophthalmology and internal and preventive medicine.
In addition, the Catholic Medical Mislion Board provided 100 cartons and 34 boxes of medical supplies and medicines. For a week, between 100 and 150 patients were seen daily in the temporary clinic, set up by the team and the Missionaries of Charity, along with their Albanian counterparts.
Much of what the U.S. medical team did was to reassess diagnoses made by Albanian doctors, whom the team found very capable despite their countrys lack of resources. Equipment, for example, was 30 or 40 years old, there were few medications, and sanitation was poor.
So was organization. A dominant impression among the volunteers was the problem of keeping crowds under control. Soon after arriving and preparing the clinic, Sister Kathryn, Dr. Cathy Falvo, a pediatrician and epidemiologist, and Catherine Schroeder, a public health administrator at New York Medal College, attended a Mass with Mother Teresa and several sisters at a church in Durrers, near a house the sisters had recently opened.
The behavior of the people during the Mass was our first indication that we might experience problems at the clinic, she wrote, as we observed a mob mentality and general lack of appropriate public behavior.
The doctors did not encounter acutely ill or malnourished people, and much of what they did was to confirm previous diagnoses and prescribe further medications. But there were moments. Father James Moynihan, Associate Secretary General, recounted one story after meeting with the volunteers upon their return:
One priest who was treated had been in prison for more than 25 years and contracted a serious case of scabies. The scaliness had spread over 75 percent of his body. One of the doctors assured him that within 24 hours, if he was faithful in the application of medication, he would see noticeable improvement, and within three to four days he would he completely cured. The priest was incredulous. But he faithfully applied the medication, and it worked its wonder! That night he slept soundly for the first time in 25 years.
The cases seen during the week-long clinic were generally chronic and/or permanent conditions for which there is no treatment or cure other than palliative approaches, such as cerebral palsy, blindness or paralysis. More than anything, the American doctors provided the patients with reassurance. They generally found that their Albanian peers had correctly diagnosed their patients problems, despite the limiting conditions in the country.
It was not concluded that the general state of physical health the doctors saw was representative of the whole of Albania. Subsequent missions are hoped for in which such medical teams would penetrate the Albanian countryside with something like a mobile health clinic.
Logistically, the churchs efforts will be further enhanced by the Vaticans formal establishment of diplomatic relations with Albania, the first since 1945. The Vatican said that it hoped the renewed relations would help Albania develop in freedom and peace, and that the country, in rediscovering its best religious traditions, can find its proper place in Europe and in the world.
Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.