Albania Revisited

by Thomas McHugh

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The frequent scene was one of exited crowds surging around the gates of a medical compound in Tirana, and many simply wanted to confirm what their own doctors had already told them. By the reports of it, they seemed to be grasping for any kind of contact with the outside world.

This is something of the state of affairs in Albania, decidedly one of the most isolated nations in the world. Until recently, it was the only officially atheistic state in the world. No sooner were bans on religious practice lifted than the people – both Muslim and Christian – began worshipping openly or relearning their practices. Mother Teresa, a native Albanian best known for her work among the poor of India, was quick to answer the call of her countrymen. She has made inroads throughout the Albanian countryside and made it possible for others to come and help.

In response to Mother Teresa’s personal appeal, John Cardinal O’Connor, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, asked the organization to organize and fund a mission to administer direct medical care and to assess the health needs of Albania. In mid-July, Sister Kathryn Callahan, C.S.C., the Association’s director of program services, accompanied a team for a week-and-a-half long stay in Tirana. The volunteer members were from the New York Medical College and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and they included four doctors specializing in pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, ophthalmology and internal and preventive medicine.

In addition, the Catholic Medical Mislion Board provided 100 cartons and 34 boxes of medical supplies and medicines. For a week, between 100 and 150 patients were seen daily in the temporary clinic, set up by the team and the Missionaries of Charity, along with their Albanian counterparts.

Much of what the U.S. medical team did was to reassess diagnoses made by Albanian doctors, whom the team found very capable despite their country’s lack of resources. Equipment, for example, was 30 or 40 years old, there were few medications, and sanitation was poor.

So was organization. A dominant impression among the volunteers was the problem of keeping crowds under control. Soon after arriving and preparing the clinic, Sister Kathryn, Dr. Cathy Falvo, a pediatrician and epidemiologist, and Catherine Schroeder, a public health administrator at New York Medal College, attended a Mass with Mother Teresa and several sisters at a church in Durrers, near a house the sisters had recently opened.

“The behavior of the people during the Mass was our first indication that we might experience problems at the clinic,” she wrote, “as we observed a ‘mob mentality’ and general lack of appropriate public behavior.”

The doctors did not encounter acutely ill or malnourished people, and much of what they did was to confirm previous diagnoses and prescribe further medications. But there were moments. Father James Moynihan, Associate Secretary General, recounted one story after meeting with the volunteers upon their return:

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