We are again enroute home from yet another trip where I am awed and humbled by what I have experienced. Kirk and I are traveling home from Pristina, Kosova. We were accompanied there by our good friends, Dr. John Kupferschmid (pediatric heart surgeon) and his wife Elizabeth and Dr. Minette Son (pediatric intensive care unit doctor). John has been to Mongolia with Kirk three times now and Minette twice. This was Kirk’s fourth trip Kosova since 2001 and it was the first trip for the rest of us.
We went to fulfill part of the dream of Dr. Ramush Bejequi, a pediatric cardiologist that Kirk first met in 2001. He and Kirk have become good friends over the years. Dr. Ramush has an incredible heart for the children of Kosova. They have even less access to corrective heart surgery than the children of Mongolia. Samaritan’s Purse Children’s Heart Project has brought over 100 children out of Kosova since 1999 for corrective heart surgery. However, in the same time period, over 70 children have died either because they have had heart defects that could not be easily repaired or because they were waiting for acceptance for care at an international hospital. There is absolutely no pediatric heart surgery in Kosova. So, Dr. Ramush and his colleagues must day after day diagnose conditions they can do little about. Dr. Ramush has a dream of bringing pediatric heart surgery to Kosova and he is dogged in pursuing it.
The first step in Dr. Ramush’s dream was the organization of a symposium on pediatric heart surgery in Kosova. The four of us went to speak at this symposium. Dr. Ramush is not a Christian. Most Kosovars are nominal Muslims, meaning they are Muslim by culture but not by practice. A woman that works for Samaritan’s Purse in Kosova says that Dr. Ramush’s heart has been changed by this Dr. Kirk Milhoan who keeps coming back to Kosova and who was willing to fulfill his promise. Kirk promised Dr. Ramush that he would one day help him to organize this symposium. He kept his promise. I was blown away by the joy and excitement with which he first greeted Kirk, “his friend,” when we arrived.
I was also blown away by the lengths he went to in organizing this conference. His goal was to have 500 people attend. We all thought if 20 to 30 people attended, that would be impressive. Pediatric heart surgery is such a specific, specialized topic, it’s hard to get many people together in the U.S. to discuss it. He filled a downtown theater in Kosova with over 150 people. We were impressed. Dr. Ramush said it was not enough. Like I said, he is incredibly dogged in his determination.
He published pamphlets and flyers and banners. He had a Kosovar drug company provide sponsorship, with materials and briefcases for the participants. He had businessmen donate funds so that he could cover the travel and lodging expenses for physicians from Albania and Macedonia, and so that he could feed the participants lavishly. I was humbled to learn that the participants paid 20 Euros (about 27 U.S. dollars) to come to the conference. However, I was relieved to learn that at least included breakfast, lunch, and a “gala” dinner. Gala it was, lasting until past 1 in the morning and including traditional Kosovar dancing. I particularly enjoyed the dancing part. I did not particularly enjoy the getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the airport this morning after going to bed at 2. Actually, it was well worth it. I was so touched by these people and their desire to do something for their children.
Part of the reason Dr. Ramush could get 150 people together, many of them to hear about a topic they know little to nothing about, is because we are Americans. Sounds arrogant, but there is no other way to say it. We were told over and over and over again by many different people how much the Kosovars love Americans. They see us as their saviors. Conversations consistently include the phrases “before the war” and “after the war.” About one in twenty Kosovars died in the war with Serbia. Most everyone lost someone.
One of the people we met with was one of the former translators for Samaritan’s Purse, a young man named Hilke. He says his brother was killed in the war. He spent six months in his house, never leaving because young men were rounded up to be either killed or sent to prison camps. After the war, his uncle, who had fled to Finland, started writing him and sending him tapes about his newfound faith in Christ. Hilke said, despite the social cost of accepting Christ, he was overwhelmed by His truth and could not deny it. Despite the fact that his family is only culturally Muslim, this still had tremendous personal cost to Hilke. His uncle was funding his education in dentistry. He disowned him and he had to quit school. His father asked him at least three times to denounce Christ. He said that first conversation with his father was the hardest of his life. His father also disowned him and kicked him out of his house. His father sent his uncles and cousins to change his mind, sometimes physically beating him. They ended up telling his father that his faith was real and Hilke was winning all their debates with him. His father did not talk to him for 4 years. Hilke was allowed to go visit his mother during this time, but his father would never speak to him. Finally, his father got deathly ill and Hilke went and took care of him, physically and financially. They now have a relationship again. Hilke says a lot of his cousins have now accepted Christ. Hilke is back in dental school and getting married next Spring, to a Christian woman his father has even accepted. Hilke desires to go to Turkey to do missionary dentistry.
Kosovars say they experienced atrocities in the war you’d never want to imagine. One said “if you were watching it on a movie, you’d turn the movie off.” And, as they see it, the U.S. came to their rescue. We were told time and again that they would love to volunteer to help the U.S. forces in Iraq. They watch the news with great interest and grieve when an American soldier dies. Dr. Ramush’s partner, Dr. Ragijb, said he prayed for Kirk every day when he was in Iraq and that if Kirk had to go back, he wanted to go with him. I cannot tell you how much they insisted on this point that they love the U.S. The hotel we stayed in was “Hotel Victory,” with a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. There were American flags and symbols and names (including Boulevard Bill Clinton) everywhere. It was truly, truly humbling.
Kosova is currently in limbo status. They are not yet a country. They are a disputed land, under U.N. management and NATO police protection. Kosovars can travel fairly freely to Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece. However, it is almost impossible to get a passport to travel anywhere else. They told us, because we are Americans, that we were the “most favored of men.” We have freedom to travel and are very welcome in their country and most countries in their region. They so desire to be their own country. We saw many signs that said, in Albanian, “We do not want to negotiate. We want to be free.” They desire to establish their own government and begin addressing some of the problems in their country.
They say that life out from under socialism is in some ways better and in some ways worse. At least then everyone had jobs. Now the unemployment rate is 70 percent. Physicians only make about 240 Euros ($320) per month. Dr. Ramush works full time at the public hospital and every evening and weekend (7 a.m. to 9 p.m., 7 days per week) in a private clinic so that he can make ends meet. U.N. management has resulted in a two-tiered society where those with U.N. jobs make 1000 Euros ($1333) per month, while the rest of the population makes far less. They say the cost of living is so much higher then their income, but somehow they survive. Families do a very good job of taking care of one another. Dr. Ramush’s two nephews, both of whom have college degrees but are unemployed, did a lot of helping with the conference. I assume their family is helped by Dr. Ramush in return.
Dr. Ramush desired to organize this conference to inspire the Kosovar doctors, medical administrators, and local government and businessmen to try to bring pediatric heart surgery to Kosova. The U.S. ambassador to Kosova did visit the hospital and take a tour with us the day before the conference. Dr. Ramush did invite the local Minister of Health to attend the conference. He did not. This was a source of great frustration to Dr. Ramush and many of the other doctors at the conference. Two surgeons came up to us after the conference was over. They had been trained in surgeries of the chest and lungs, but had not received any training in cardiac surgery, although they had very much desired to receive this training and perform these surgeries. They said, though, that they have no support from local officials, such as the Minister of Health, for training and resources. They said “please help us, however you can.”
We did meet an official from a foundation named for Mother Teresa that attended all of conference festivities. He came to us at the “gala” dinner and said he wanted to raise a lot of money to bring pediatric heart surgery to Kosova. Hallelujah! Kirk saw 21 heart patients on the day before the conference, screening them for potential inclusion in the Children’s Heart Project and surgery in the U.S. or Canada. He had to tell the parents of three of these children that there was nothing we could do. We all fought tears as he did this. What amazes me is the Kosovar pediatric cardiologists have to do this day in and day out. That is what drives Dr. Ramush’s dogged determination. We pray that the Lord helps him realize his dream.
Dr. Kim Milhoan, President, For Hearts and Souls