Almost two decades after completing his residency in internal medicine at Yale, Michael V. Viola, M.D., HS ’66, was doing the kinds of things that serious-minded doctors do: treating patients, teaching students, heading the cancer center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But then something happened to alter his sure-footed career path.
While he was at Stony Brook in the early 1980s, a large influx of Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrived to escape homelands rocked by civil wars. “It was an extraordinarily unfortunate situation,” recalls Viola, who received his medical degree from McGill in 1964. “Most of them were illegal, and they had no health care. They weren’t designated as refugees escaping an oppressive government, because the United States was supporting their governments.”
Viola started collecting and sending medicine to villages in El Salvador. As that effort grew, he was joined by other doctors, and a small nongovernment relief organization was born. The group crystallized into Medicine for Peace, with Viola as its founder and director. He continues to direct the group from his home in the Washington area.
Today, Medicine for Peace, an all-volunteer organization run by a five-member executive board, has about 50 affiliated physicians and nurses from around the country. During and after the first Gulf War, members of the group spent five years in Iraq, filming the destruction, teaching Iraqi physicians, studying children’s nutritional needs and delivering medicine. In 1993, members helped negotiate the release of American oil executive Ken Beaty, who was arrested by Iraqis after he strayed across the border from Kuwait. The group’s involvement in the rescue put an end to their efforts in Iraq.
“Once that happened, the Iraqis never quite looked at us the same way again,” Viola said. “We’d done a lot of work with children, so they kind of trusted us. But once we were critical of their government, and it looked like we were working with the U.S. government, things changed, and we were kicked out in 1995.”
While Medicine for Peace maintains a presence in Haiti and Bosnia, its involvement in the current war in Iraq has been minimal because of the danger and restricted access. “There’s not much we can do,” Viola said. “We were told we need to have armed escorts at all times. We can’t operate like that.” The group hopes to send a team to Baghdad “to locate a large group of Iraqi children we brought to the U.S. for surgery in the 1990s. We hope they have survived all of the violence.”
Unlike larger, better-known relief organizations, such as Doctors without Borders, Medicine for Peace (www.medpeace.org) won’t take government funding (it relies on private donations) and will criticize U.S. policy. “We’re smaller and more freewheeling,” Viola said. “We tend to go to controversial places and take controversial stands.” But that renegade approach has risks. Noting that by the end of 2003, 57 relief and diplomatic workers had been killed since the current Iraq war began in March 2003, Viola said, “Humanitarian workers used to be protected, but the nature of war has changed. Now civilians are targeted. If belligerents kill civilians, they certainly don’t mind killing relief workers.” In August a bomb at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad killed 17 people.
Still, despite the danger, Viola, who runs the U.S. Department of Energy’s Medical Sciences Division, spends as much time as possible working for Medicine for Peace. “I’m not saying you get an enormous reward. There’s nothing rewarding about mass graves or large numbers of children dying of starvation, but you realize you’re having an impact in some small way.”