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Bringing Healers to the Infirm in Croatia : Balkans: Under a program led by O.C. woman, U.S. doctors tend to war victims' wounds.

BATTLE TO HEAL. An Orange County woman battles bureaucracy in the war-ravaged Balkans to get U.S. doctors to the wounded. SECOND OF THREE PARTS


SPLIT, Croatia — The locale was a 400-bed hospital by the sunny Adriatic seaside where, in more peaceful times, bemedaled pensioners from the Yugoslav army used to fret over their hearts or livers.

Ivica Trogrlic was a different kind of casualty, in a different Croatia. Lying anesthetized on the operating table, the brown-haired, sallow-skinned 22-year-old had had his left upper arm shredded by shrapnel while fighting the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil war.

The surgeon in steel-rimmed glasses and Dutch clogs scrutinizing the immobile Croat's mangled musculature had plenty of experience with battle wounds. He practices medicine, after all, in inner-city Detroit. "I've just gone from one disaster zone to another," Dr. Mehul Mehta, 35, joked though his gauze mask.

Under a medical aid program for victims of the Balkan war organized by a hospital administrator from Orange County, Mehta and a dozen other American doctors flew to Croatia last month for 2 1/2 weeks of operating, consulting and helping to organize better health care.

"I'm not Doctors Without Borders, I'm just one person," said Sonja Hagel, associate administrator at Century City Hospital in California and the mastermind of the effort. "But I think if you've saved one life, you've saved the world."

Hers was an ambitious agenda not without its problems, some attributable to cultural clashes and physicians' dueling egos. Earlier this year, the Austrian-born registered nurse organized the placement of 19 medical evacuees from war-ravaged Bosnia in U.S. hospitals, fighting both United Nations red tape and the reluctance of some profit-conscious U.S. hospital managers to treat victims of a distant conflict for free. "It took so long to put it together," Hagel recalled. She had hoped for many more evacuees.

This time, she brought the healers to the infirm, instead of the other way around.

The core of the program, Operation Second Chance, became a disparate band of doctors, including half a dozen plastic and reconstructive surgeons. Their volunteer scalpel work and suturing on people mutilated in the fighting that has raged in the former Yugoslav federation, Hagel joked, "proves there's more to the field than doing 'boobs and tubes.' "

The long operation that began shortly after 9 a.m. in the operating theater of Split's Krizine Hospital was one vivid example. Mehta set out to remake young Trogrlic's arm.

The surgeons cut the latissimus dorsi muscle on his upper back. Then, using tools that looked like elongated clamping scissors, the surgeons in green smocks passed the strip of healthy tissue, about eight inches long, through a gash cut in the patient's side, then wrapped and packed the flesh around the bone of the upper arm.

"It's camera time!" Mehta exclaimed as he drew back from work he was obviously proud of.

Plastic and micro surgeons, orthopedists, a retina specialist and a dental surgeon answered the call, spread through professional journals and word of mouth, to come to Croatia at no gain to themselves. Some elected to join up while between job moves at home, but the reasons seemed as varied as the participants themselves.

"I guess it gives me a sense of purpose, of meaning, in my life," said Dr. Jann Johnson, 43, a plastic surgeon who is moving to Sausalito in California and who accompanied Hagel on a previous trip to Croatia last January.

"The Croatian doctors are basically burned out, so overwhelmed by the numbers of acute wounded and the lack of supplies that they don't have time to think about reconstructive surgery," she said.

The needs are enormous, admitted physicians in Split who had their own casualties to worry about during Croatia's one-on-one war with the Serbs, but who now are treating the wounded brought in by helicopter or ambulance from Bosnia.

"There are so many casualties," a tired Dr. Radoje Persic said as he rested in a corner of a physicians lounge at Krizine Hospital. "Our capacity is such that we can provide for keeping people alive, but not for the final, fine operations that require more time, more materials."

Dado Brajcic, the overworked chief of plastic surgery at the hospital that once belonged to the Yugoslav National Army, said he has had 15 days of vacation in the last three years.

Despite such grueling workloads and manifest signs of job burnout among the Croats, it did not take long for the American doctors, who had already performed a series of operations and other volunteer work in Zagreb, to sense that they were unwelcome at Krizine and Firule, Split's other major hospital.

"Some of the doctors here don't want to talk to us," Dan Zinar, 37, chief of orthopedic trauma at the Los Angeles County/Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said a few days after arriving in this ancient port city on the Dalmatian coast. "They feel threatened by all these Americans arriving."

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