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Letter: A Mineola Graduate Does Something Extraordinary

Growing up in Mineola, a lot of us were rabid Beatles fans (I myself attended their concert at Shea Stadium in 1966 along with a number of my Mineola High School classmates). Many of us still remain fans (there’s even a restaurant in Mineola named after one of Paul’s songs). Recently, the two remaining Beatles — Paul McCartney and Ringo Star — announced that the proceeds from the download of one of their songs (through their new XBOX game) will go directly to an organization called Doctors without Borders (DWB).

DWB is an international, humanitarian aid organization, which provides medical aid in more than 80 countries. They provide aid to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. These folks work in some of the most desperate, poverty ridden, dangerous places in the world.

 What many of the folks in Mineola might not know is that one of our own, John Yergan, Mineola High School Class of 1968, is currently working with DWB in Nigeria.

Nigeria is undergoing armed ethnic and sectarian violence in it’s oil producing Niger Delta region.

John was a star running back on the 1967 MHS football team that went undefeated and won the Rutgers Cup as Nassau County’s best team that year.  He attended Columbia University for his undergraduate and medical studies. Since the ’80s, he’s lived in the Seattle area where he was on the faculty at the University of Washington School of Medicine and most recently an emergency medicine specialist.

Here’s John’s latest letter letting his friends know what his work and life in Africa has been like.  I thought the folks in Mineola might find this interesting.

Although neither John or I have lived in Mineola or Williston Park for a number of years (John in Seattle, me in Richmond, Virginia) we will always feel like the Mineola/Williston Park area is our home and wanted to share this with our friends.

Bill Bush

Mineola High School Class of 1968

Here is the letter from John Yergan:

Dear Friends:   

 Two months, one third of the way behind me. I have settled into life in a tropical riverine environment. It took me several weeks to be somewhat comfortable in the humidity as I found myself suffering on and off from sudden profuse sweating. Thankfully, my bedroom has a fan and the electricity is now on more than it is off, I hope.

 For security reasons, I must endure restrictions in my ability to move around independently. For example, I must remain in our compound after dark, unless more than one of us leave together in one of our official vehicles. We must return by 10 p.m. Military check points abound, both on the roads and in the creeks. In the boat we must raise our hands above our heads starting about 100 yards away from a checkpoint. We can take them down at the checkpoint. Usually passing the soldiers goes very smoothly. Unfortunately, the security matter prevents me from forwarding any pictures along with this update. 

The medical work remains stimulating. Much of what I see is relatively new and therefore interesting from that perspective alone. Additionally, the human stories behind the medical problems differ dramatically from those at home. Poverty, malnutrition, traditional beliefs, lack of access to transportation, and other factors affect greatly the severity of disease at the time we see a patient. In a typical day, we may see patients of all ages with these diseases: malnutrition, severe malaria and other parasitic infections, pneumonia, typhoid fever, gastroenteritis, severe anemia, measles complicated by pneumonia, chronic infections, injuries which ideally should have been seen weeks earlier, acute trauma, and many other maladies.

I have cared for a young girl with new onset polio causing paralysis in three limbs. Two days ago, I assisted in the delivery of a neonate requiring resuscitation after a complicated prolonged labor for the mother. Definitely not my area of expertise, but you draw on the prior experiences you do have, share knowledge collectively, and focus hard on ensuring a good outcome. Although it went well in the end, I continue to shake my head over the stress and exhilaration of those three early morning hours.

Conversely, yesterday I was called to the maternity room by one of the midwives, because a woman who was about to deliver was nervous and wanted to leave, or at least wanted to deliver lying on the floor as she had during her prior deliveries at home. The midwives delivered a healthy baby girl and I spent a pleasant hour holding the woman’s hand. Every day presents a new challenge.

Supervising the new health center has been a rewarding experience. I enjoy interacting with the Nigerian staff, and find them intelligent, warm and engaging…most of the time. I feel I have made many new friends. Both in the health center and in the village, I am frequently referred to as “Sir” (for the first time in my life), a sign of respect related to my age, I suppose, but also my status as the visiting doctor. As you might guess, I prefer “Dr. John” and this has caught on with those who know me. The days pass quickly, leaving me fairly exhausted most evenings, especially if I also get in a good jog before dark. A cold beer and salted peanuts remain a must at the end of most days.

Some days, we travel one to two hours by fast open skiff, including occasionally gliding down creeks barely wider than the boat. Our goal in this activity is to bring a medical team to the more neglected, less accessible villages in the Delta. One day, we grounded the skiff in the mud and had to wait for the tide to come in. A 6 to 8 foot snake, about as big around as the fat end of a baseball bat, entertained us as it slithered through the mud and mangrove roots chasing and devouring land crabs. It took a few minutes for some of us in the skiff to settle down and adjust to viewing nature so up close and personal.

 The violent conflicts between militants, government forces, and the oil companies appear to be winding down, although the many and complicated issues that provoked the conflicts remain. I feel it is a special opportunity to be here, and to try to assist. I am sure this experience will have significant and lasting effects on me. If you haven’t already, do something like this when you can. You won’t be sorry.