July/August 1999

On a Mission to Care: Finding Injuries of the Human Spirit in Kosovo


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Theresa Tavernero, emergency services manager for St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, Wash., helps treat a 15-month old baby living among 5,000 Kosovar refugees crammed into a former tobacco factory. Tavernero completed a three-week medical mission in Kosovo as a member of Northwest Medical Teams.

It was a simple, small gold pin with people holding hands. "These are my friends that couldn’t come with me," Theresa Tavernero explained dozens of times as she helped deliver medical care to Kosovar refugees. And each time she explained it, her patients would touch or kiss the pin.

The gold is long gone, worn off by the touch of thousands. Now, Tavernero, emergency services manager for St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, Wash., is back at work after a three-week medical mission in Kosovo. As a member of Northwest Medical Teams, she was prepared to give a lot. She didn’t anticipate receiving so much in return.

"It made me face my humility and who I am," reflected Tavernero a week after her return.

"I was given some special gifts – to share. I am deeply humbled by my experience and realize, more than ever, that it would be criminal not to share our God-given gifts with those in need, in whatever capacity we can."

Her small team attended to the urgent medical needs of thousands of refugees living in overcrowded, makeshift camps. Their first major assignment was to deliver medical care to more than 5,000 refugees crammed into seven four-story buildings, with no electricity or running water, that were formerly used as a tobacco factory. They received thousands of refugees forced across the border by train, triaging and treating the sickest.

Tavernero served in other refugee camp sites, including what used to be a veterinary school as well an Islamic Relief tent camp. Because the sick were often too ill to come to them, she was dispatched with an interpreter and an Albanian doctor to several sites near border villages housing Kosovar refugees.

The team improvised and invented practical care delivery techniques such as using bottle caps, which measured out five milliliters, to dispense medication. "There wasn’t too much to work with," Tavernero said. They regularly encountered malnutrition, lice, scabies, diarrhea and other afflictions.

But perhaps the most common injuries were of the human spirit. "Their parents were killed in front of them," Tavernero said, referencing a photo she had taken of smiling children, "but you could never tell by this picture. None of these kids are crying for their moms and dads. They just continue to survive."

No medicine could cure such trauma. "All you can do is hold them and weep with them," Tavernero said. But with tragedy comes amazing strength. "The love that they have for their families and friends is much greater than the hatred and pain they have endured," she said. "That’s what you take away and what stays with you."

Her trip has given her a refocused view of her work and a renewed appreciation of St. Clare’s ministry of health care. "I choose to work in an organization like ours because of our values and mission," Tavernero said. "There are people in our community who are in pain as well. It’s just a different place and circumstance." But the mission is the same, according to Tavernero. "We all need to be reminded of our blessings and share our gifts in healing the people who need us," she said.

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"There were a lot of happy moments. I remember these children very well," said Theresa Tavernero of the orphans she met in an Islamic refugee camp.