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Life on the Mean Streets

Whether in land mine-strewn Jaffna, Sri Lanka, or at home in L.A., Dr. Peter Meade untiringly tends to those caught up in the calamities of civil strife.

January 28, 1998|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — Dr. Peter Meade pedals his bicycle to work and points out the sights along the way.

"That building was bombed," he says as he tools down Jaffna's cratered, rubble-strewn streets.

"There," Meade says, gesturing toward a wall shot so many times it looks like a waffle. "Some guy had fun with a machine gun."

Meade turns a corner, pedals.

"This is the train station," Meade says, pointing to a collapsed building. "There are land mines in there. It's a landmark--of sorts."

So begins a typical day for Meade, a Los Angeles surgeon and San Pedro resident on one of the world's more unusual sabbaticals. Meade, director of the surgical intensive care unit at Martin Luther King-Drew University Medical Center, is spending three months in a bombed-out, machine-gunned shell of a hospital short on supplies and crowded with the casualties of Sri Lanka's civil war.

For Meade, 45, his volunteer work with the relief organization Doctors Without Borders offers an opportunity to succor the sick in a purer way in a place shorn of First World comforts and quick fixes. At the same time, by teaching his peers surgical techniques learned back home, Meade is leaving something behind--and learning something about himself.

"In L.A.," says Meade, "I take the freeway to work, I talk on my cell phone. I've got e-mail, TV, a stereo. You get separated from yourself."

As he speaks, the doctor walks into a building with holes in the ceiling, crumbled walls and shattered windows. It is the hospital's maternity ward.

"Here, what you are left with is yourself."

*

Meade, at the end of his stint at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, has stepped into one of the world's most bloody and intractable wars.

Until recently, Jaffna was under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group claiming to represent Sri Lanka's Tamil-speaking minority. The Tigers, as they are known, are trying to set up their own state in the northern part of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by the Sinhalese-speaking majority. More than 50,000 people have been killed since the war began 15 years ago.

In 1995, the Sri Lankan army moved in, and the battle left Jaffna ruined and dangerous. Hundreds of land mines lie hidden in the roads and fields. Buildings--raked by bullets, gutted by fire--creak toward collapse. At night, Tiger guerrillas sneak into the city to ambush troops.

At the same time, thousands of people displaced by the battles are coming home, stricken by malaria and tuberculosis, trying to rebuild their lives in a city that has only flickering electricity, almost no phones and only a handful of buses and cars.

Meade recalls the day Doctors Without Borders called to ask him if he wanted to go to Jaffna.

"Where's that?" he asked.

He arrived in early November, aboard a Red Cross boat that is one of the few modes of transport not regularly under fire by Tiger guerrillas.

Each day, the doctor walks the dilapidated wards, chatting up patients as he instructs his fellow surgeons. Patients with conditions common to every hospital--diabetes, cancer, hypertension--mix with those struck down by the war.

Of the patients who die here, Meade says, most perish from gunshot wounds. But Meade is a trauma surgeon at a Los Angeles hospital that receives as many as 1,000 gunshot victims a year. He says he can handle the worst Jaffna has to offer.

"We have a lot of trauma here," Meade says, "but nothing like what we have at King."

Meade walks to the bed of a middle-aged man whose right leg is missing beneath the knee--blown off by a land mine. The doctor prescribes antibiotics and flashes a thumbs-up sign. The man's blank eyes blink in response.

Since May 1996, at least 119 people in Jaffna have lost their lives or their limbs to land mines. Most of the victims end up here. After just a few weeks in Sri Lanka, Meade has become an expert on land mines, drawing up maps of where they lie and helping organize a program to inform Jaffna residents of their dangers.

Meade was born in Rochester, N.Y., one of seven children raised in a Roman Catholic home. His father worked on a General Motors assembly line.

A graduate of Notre Dame, Meade started his medical studies in Mexico and returned to the U.S. to graduate from Albany Medical College in New York. In 1988, he began working in the trauma ward of King-Drew Medical Center, where he's been ever since.

Dr. Edward W. Savage, medical director at King-Drew, said Meade either works or is on call nearly every day of the year.

In his spare time when he is in L.A., he flies to Mexico with Orange County-based LIGA International, a group of volunteers who provide free medical care to villagers. He also works with Mission Doctors Assn., a Los Angeles medical charity.

"Peter is a devoted and committed physician, beyond being a nice guy," Savage said. "The first thing I thought of when he told me he was going to Sri Lanka was, 'How am I going to cover for the guy?' "

He's the same in Jaffna, his colleagues say.

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