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Fred Hesser, the Wandering Physician Assistant By Fran Hesser

Fred Hesser’s medical career has ironically come around full circle. He studied to become a physician assistant at Emory University following an earlier career as an Emergency Medical Technician. After over 25 years as a PA he’s now volunteering to create an EMT system in Sri Lanka, a troubled island nation off the southeast coast of India. Fred, a 1981 graduate, began his career at Emory as one of the first PA’s for Andreas Grundzig, the inventor of cardio-angioplasty. After 10 years, he moved to Montana to return to his first love – emergency medicine. Fred worked in the emergency rooms of two different Montana hospitals before “retiring” in 2000.

But he wasn’t one to take retirement lying down. Within weeks he had volunteered to serve as Mobile Clinic Health Care Coordinator in war-torn Kosovo for International Medical Corps. While there, he and his wife Fran were responsible for creation, training and oversight of 28 mobile clinics going to rural clinics that had often not had any medical care since the tragic ethnic cleansing war. Without adequate facilities, his teams of Albanian (and later Serbian) doctors and nurses, worked in schools, churches, mosques and storefronts – as well as tents and out of the back of a purloined ambulance – to bring medical care to the people of Kosovo.

Fred heard horrific stories of the torture, maiming and killing of innocent Albanians by the Serbians and saw firsthand the result of the fiery destruction of hundreds of tiny red-roofed mountain villages. Struck by wanderlust, he then went to work for a commercial firm offering medical services to U.S. military contractors and U.S. Air force officers on an Egyptian Air Base in Abu Suwayr, north of Cairo, Egypt. Sent home after the war broke out in Iraq, Fred started looking for more volunteer opportunities.

His next volunteer tour of duty was for the International Rescue Committee in Ikafe, Uganda where he served as assistant to the medical director, organizing and providing medical care for refugees from the Sudan. Here he got his first taste of the widespread disease and malnutrition suffered by people living in makeshift refugee camps without adequate water and food.

Next, Fred became associated with Medical Teams International, a faith-based Portland, OR., organization. He has done several missions for them over the last few years, beginning in Banda Ache, Indonesia, after the devastating tsunami swept over the island nation on Boxer Day, 2004. With his wife Fran, who has also become addicted to relief work, Fred was responsible for coordinating medical, dental and psychological care for the victims of the tsunami.

The devastation was overwhelming. For almost five kilometers inland from the ocean, nothing survived except the mosaic floors and some broken walls of homes and businesses and one well built-mosque. An estimated 250,000 people died in the waters which some scientists say rose as high as 90 feet, based on the debris on hillside trees on the Indian Ocean. Nine out of ten hospitals were destroyed in Banda Aceh and many of the doctors and nurses died in the earthquake and tsunami flooding. Volunteers from all over the world came to help and coordination soon became a problem.

The Hessers survived the 9th biggest earthquake in history three months later when an 8.7 quake hit while they were sleeping in March 28, 2005. The next day Fred and two other MTI crew members were on UN helicopters bound for the out-islands of Nias and Simelue where the devastation was severe. They slept on the floor of the wrecked hulk of the airport terminal (with chunks of cement hanging from the ceiling) and went by day in helicopters to offer medical care to remote villages.

After a brief rest in the U.S., Fred volunteered to help care for people in the mountains of Guatemala following devastating mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan. And not forgetting his own country, he volunteered with the U.S. Public Health Service in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina. The next year, MTI sent Fred back to Indonesia to provide medical care in Java, following another deadly earthquake.

In the fall of 2007, the Hessers went to Sri Lanka to establish rural clinics and offer healthcare services in the war torn and tsunami damaged coastal villages of Kuchaveli and Tiriyai. Supervising a staff of nine local Tamils (people whose predecessors were brought to Sri Lanka from India to work the tea plantations); Fred was responsible for the care of 50-70 patients a day. Emergency patients had to be transported by ambulance to the closest government hospital in Trincomalee, three hours away by pot-holed roads.

Twice during the Hessers’ six months in Sri Lanka, there were incidents by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists within 2-3 kilometers of the base hospital where they stayed in Kuchaveli. These involved night raids by Tiger soldiers trying to get food and medical supplies from shops in local villages.

But the care he was able to offer made the danger worthwhile. Fred cared for the victims of poisonous snakes, elephant attacks and vehicle accidents. One of his most memorable patients was Riswan, a 13-year-old boy who’d been attacked by a crocodile when he waded into a tidal lagoon to recover a downed kite.

"I have been very fortunate in being able to work with caring and energetic humanitarian organizations,” he added. “I was also lucky  to have a very supportive wife who was willing to share the good and the bad. (mostly good)”

Fred was called back to Sri Lanka in August, by country director Donnie Woodyard, to supervise the creation of an EMS program in the war-torn north of the country. Based in Jaffna on the northeast coast, he’s currently struggling to get supplies to the region (the roads have been closed by the government to keep Tiger terrorists from being able to travel). One thing Fred has learned in a war-torn third-world country, is patience. It often takes a long time to get anything done.

His familiarity with the Tamil population – a gentle minority group who are suspected by the majority Singhalese  government because the Tiger militants come from their ranks, has helped him to understand and deal with the problems people living in the northeast face. Medical supplies are often hard to obtain and food can be in short supply.

Fred will shortly begin training ambulance crews from the five local rural hospitals to teach them correct emergency response. He has just gotten permission to be out after the 9 p.m. curfew so he can ride with the crews and give them on-the-spot instruction. 

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