Dr. Hernando Garzón, who lives in Davis and works as an emergency room doctor at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, boarded a plane Tuesday bound for East Africa, where 12 million people are currently at risk of starvation and 150,000 children under five are at imminent risk of dying.
He will help implement a program to treat those suffering in Somalia, Kenya and possibly Ethiopia. Click here if you'd like to donate to Relief International, which he's representing.
This Q&A touches on the regional drought and governmental issues that have combined to make the situation so sad. Garzón also discusses why he decided to make Davis his home.
How long will you be in Africa?
I’ll be there for three weeks doing an assessment. Relief International has had an existing program in Somalia for a number of years.
What got us to the point that the United Nations would designate it a famine?
A couple of things. The drought, which we know is cyclicical in this region, is worse this year than it was in previous years. So there’s less local food available. That’s one big thing. The other big thing is the political climate particularly in Somalia.
We learn from what’s happened in previous famines. The world is poised to help when they can in advanced, but the political climate being what it is in Somalia; relief organizations are not allowed in to provide relief.
What will determine where and when you work?
The Ethiopian government must give permission for Relief International to work in the country. They have a really constrictive policy about allowing international NGOs in there to work. If we can get that permission and I still have time in my three weeks, we’ll probably make an effort to go investigate that as well.
What specifically will your work entail while you’re in Africa?
I will probably not deliver medical care but will likely be setting up a program where that can happen for weeks and months down the line. There are two levels of care. One of general medical care for the refugee population that has to do with water and disease prevention for things you see in those environments even when malnutrition is not an issue.
The other side of this coin is a screening program for malnutrition and various levels of intervention. If someone is mildly malnourished, you can make sure they have food supplements, send them home and check on them every couple of days. For the severely malnourished, we have a therapeutic feeding program where you may have to actually admit the children and put a feeding tube into their stomach. They require more intensive medical care. There’s a spectrum of programs.
This event has been brewing for six months, but since it’s a slow-onset kind of event, it doesn’t get the same kind of attention as events like Japan or Katrina or Haiti. This is a much larger disaster by scale. The numbers are staggering.
This may be an impossible question, but do you have any opinions about how to create a long-term solution to struggles in that part of the world?
People write whole textbooks on that topic, so it’s really complex. The first obvious thing would be to somehow get a stable government in Somalia that would allow relief organizations to work there. In an ideal situation, you want to have the markets function so that you can bring in food and sell it so that there is an economy and a sustainable process.
There are other areas of the world that don’t produce enough food for the number of people they have, but they have markets and economies that allow the importation and selling of food in the market, so you don’t have famine. But that’s several pay grades above mine for sure.
You and your family live in Davis. How long have you guys been here?
Ever since I moved out to California in 1992. I’ve been working at Kaiser Permanente since then in Sacramento.
My childrens’ mom had an Air Force commitment. She’s a physician as well but worked for three years at Travis Air Force Base. Davis became the obvious place to live so that we would split our commute in opposite directions.
Even though she now works in Sacramento, Davis is such a wonderful place that we stayed to raise our kids there.
My daughter will be off to her second year of college at Williams back east in Massachusetts and my two boys are still in high school.
When you leave home on these kinds of trips, are you personally affected by what you see, or can you isolate the feeling?
A little bit of both. Feeling it personally is part of what gives me mission to do this work. It allows me to be motivated to make the sacrifice of leaving home.
But there has to be some way of isolating and moving beyond it. You have to find a way to separate as well. It gives me tremendous reverence for what it is to experience the human condition. I feel much more related to people who live halfway around the world than if I didn’t do this kind of work.
I’m much more grateful for what we have. It’s unreal to realize how wonderful we have it, even with all of our problems and our economy. We live so much more richly than other people around the world.