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World Views: Hugo Chavez's Reelection, Kevin Cahill on ''Silent Witnesses'' (Oct 12, 2012)
On Sunday, voters in Venezuela reelected Hugo Chavez to a fourth term as the president of the oil-rich South American country.  Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said there's a lot of questions about voter intimidation.

"There's new mechanics [to the polling process].  It's a touch screen." Landis said.  "The worry is, if you vote against the president, there could be repercussions.  So I think people were intimidated.  We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that people said, 'I'm not going to vote against the guy.  I want my job.'"

Political scientist and global security expert Rebecca Cruise said Chavez's 2011 colon cancer diagnosis raises questions about whether or not Chavez would even live to the end of his six-year term in 2019.

"It's pretty amazing to me that we have an election with a man that has cancer," Cruise said.  "It's hard to think about in this country, a presidential candidate, let alone a president, having an illness and that no being an issue in the election."

The United Nations estimates thousands of innocent people die each year due to land mines - some that have been in the ground for decades.  A new photography exhibit at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center artistically represents the suffereing, and the hope of the diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to end the epidemic.

Kevin Cahill donated to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art the fifty photographs that make up Silent Witnesses.  Cahill is the Senior Medical Consultant to the UN Health Service, and also serves as a Clinical Professor of Tropical Medicine at New York University.

"I started taking care of photographers, and I have an inordinate number of photographers as patients," Cahill said. "I set up a project where I said we would give each photographer two prostheses, five days, and that they would be asked, "What do you as artists see when I tell you there 100 million mines in the earth, and mostly women and children blowing up?" And that's how the exhibit began."

Cahill has spent more than 50 years working in refugee camps in roughly 65 countries.

"I found myself as the only physician in this vast area," Cahill said.  "At first, I tried to act like a physician, and you realized you couldn't act like a physician. There were certain things that necessitated you working with the local, what you'd call a witch doctor, or an indigenous healer, because he had a lock on the community."

The exhibit Silent Witnesses is on display on the second floor of the Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library in Oklahoma City through January 2, 2013.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On his view that health and humanitarian issues have been peripheral concerns in American foreign policy

"Many years ago, Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of State, was in my office, and I started talking to him about this, and he became the strongest proponent of the idea that we should focus on these areas. America's a good country, but around the world, certainly at the U.N., we may be feared, but we're often not loved, because we don't display the care and compassion that we can do. I have always had a very broad definition of what my role is. I started life as a physician, diagnosing individual patients, but land mines were a big problem in camps. So you couldn't not pay attention to them. You couldn't not pay attention to the needs for education of children. So all of these become part of what you do if you're trying to run refugee camps."

On how he first became involved in the land mine epidemic in Nicaragua

"Every time I'd go down and see critically ill patients during the Contra-Sandinista War, the land mine people would always be in the same bed. They had no legs, and there was nobody fitting them with prostheses. I had worked in Somalia for many, many years. I kept a team of there for 35 years, in Northern Somalia, and that's where this program began. I just determined if I could use simple prostheses, I could almost train the amputees to put them on their fellow amputees, and not depend on expensive doctors, and infrastructure costs. That program, which started in the mid-90's, is still functioning. It's been replicated in other areas."

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST:
Dr. Kevin Cahill, welcome to World Views.

KEVIN CAHILL:
Thank you very much.

GRILLOT:
So you're a physician with a long history of work on global health issues.  You've traveled to over 60 countries working on these issues.  You've written many books and articles.  You've even worked in the field with Mother Teresa in India, working on relief for the poor.  What is it as a physician that's drawn you to the subject of global health, and focusing on humanitarian issues?

CAHILL:
Well, I specialized early on in tropical medicine, and tropical medicine as defined in those years was the diagnosis and care of individual patients with tropical diseases.  But in the early 60's and 70's, I found myself working mainly in conflict zones, and the problems of refugee camps became very much more serious in my life, and much more challenging.  Those problems are not purely medical.  They're problems that involve security, and shelter, and food, and sanitation.  So it's a much broader and more complex world that I got into, and I've stayed in that world, and as you say, I've traveled a great deal, and after my wife died, I figured I've traveled to 65 countries, and I think it was all in refugee camps.  I have never been to a resort, but I once said to someone I know that interesting things happen in refugee camps.  I don't know what happens in resorts.

GRILLOT:
What is it that, in particular, sparked your interest in refuges?  You mentioned tropical medicine.  I'm really intrigued by the fact that you're talking about how it's not just medical issues here.  These are larger issues.  As a physician, and trained as a physician, what is it that first sparked this interest in things broader than medicine?

CAHILL:
I was working in Southern Sudan.  I was in the U.S. Navy, and I was in a medical research unit.  We were down doing some research in Southern Sudan at a time when the missionaries who constituted the entire health service of an area about the size of the Northeast United States, were thrown out over one weekend.  So I found myself as the only physician in this vast area.  At first, I tried to act like a physician, and you realized you couldn't act like a physician.  There were certain things that necessitated you working with the local, what you'd call a witch doctor, or an indigenous healer, because he had a lock on the community.  There were certain moral issues.  Do you stay up all night and deliver babies and take care of gunshot wounds, or do you go to bed and preserve your own health, so that you can continue to work?  These were very defining, almost moral, questions that I faced at that time, and I felt at the end of it that this was an area that I wanted to work in, and then you get sort-of a reputation of working in one disaster area, and people call you to see if you'd work in the next one.  At the end of my last textbook on tropical medicine, which is in the eighth edition, I actually have an epilogue which is entitled, "The Evolution of a Tropicalist," because I evolved gradually from being, as I say, just a physician.  I still see patients, and there's nothing like the legitimacy that comes from seeing very sick patients, but most of what I do now is training humanitarian workers, and I have a program at Fordham University.  We have an institute of international humanitarian affairs, and I have over 2,000 graduates from 133 nations now.  They're not young students.  The average age is 40.  They're mostly field-experienced workers, but when I first started, there wasn't even a common vocabulary.  There were no standards, so it was really building a new discipline, and having people agree on how you approach these problems.  So that's where academia and the university come into the thing.  Only academia can offer degrees and diplomas, and the university is the place where people should be able to reflect on what are the good practices, and what are the bad practices, and how can you go ahead from what you've experienced in the past to a better future.

GRILLOT:
So you've actually created, as you said, a new discipline.  Is this one that you find to be growing every year?

CAHILL:
Well, I didn't create it.  Many, many people did.  But it's growing that, at Fordham, we have a minor in humanitarian affairs, and it's among the most popular minors, so that undergraduate students across the country, across the world, are very interested in a discipline that's not just emotional.  It's not just, "I want to help the starving baby," but how do you approach and make a good contribution?  So that minor, you can take a masters there at a graduate level, but I think it's this linking of the university with a field experience that was very challenging, both to the university; we had to convince them that these were legitimate fields for study, and you had to convince the field workers that they couldn't go ahead and move within the United Nations, for example, from UNICEF to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees because no one agreed what your training had been.  So you had to get some agreed-upon diploma courses, and degree courses, and that's really what I have been trying to work with, and many other people have been doing this as well.

GRILLOT:
Like your experience, we've seen here at the University of Oklahoma, a growth in young, college student interest in humanitarian issues, and working in relief services and traveling to these challenging parts of the world, like you're suggesting.  What do you think is contributing to the rise in that?  Is it the demand?  Is there just more of a need for this kind of work?  Or is it just more awareness that young people today have about these kinds of problems around the world?

CAHILL:
I think both are true.  There is certainly no decrease in the demand.  The world is getting to be a more complex place, and the amount of resources is going down for disaster relief.  In fact, I have a new book that just came out two weeks ago called More With Less, and the subtitle is "Disasters in an Era of Declining Resources."  And that's what I worked on at the U.N. and have served three presidents as their chief advisor on humanitarian and public health.  It's very clear that we're going to have to find new resources for doing the things that we did before, so the demand is certainly there.  I think there is, not a new, because I think it's from time immemorial, but there's an awareness in young people, particularly in this country, that they're very blessed, and they have to learn that the world out there isn't always blessed, and they're part of that world.

GRILLOT:
Well, related to that, I'd like to talk a little bit about the exhibit that you're here in Oklahoma to show.  The exhibit Silent Witnesses that focuses on photography; photographs that involve prosthetic limbs as a way in which you raise awareness about land mines, and the impact of land mines.  I would imagine, in particular, anti-personnel land mines, around the world.  So what exactly is the purpose of this exhibit, and how did you get involved in that, and why did you bring it to the University of Oklahoma?

CAHILL:
I first became involved when I was working in Nicaragua.  Every time I'd go down and see critically ill patients during the Contra-Sandinista War, the land mine people would always be in the same bed.  They had no legs, and there was nobody fitting them with prostheses.  I had worked in Somalia for many, many years.  I kept a team of there for 35 years, in Northern Somalia, and that's where this program began.  I just determined if I could use simple prostheses, I could almost train the amputees to put them on their fellow amputees, and not depend on expensive doctors, and infrastructure costs.  That program, which started in the mid-90's, is still functioning.  It's been replicated in other areas.  In my medical practice, it was almost like a family practice.  I started taking care, early on, of war photojournalists, and photojournalists in conflict areas go through swarms, and they all get sick, and they come back and you start taking care of them.  Then they go, and they meet their Museum of Modern Art photographers, and say, "Look, if you have a bad illness, you might go see Dr. Cahill."  So I started taking care of photographers, and I have an inordinate number of photographers as patients.  I set up a project where I said we would give each photographer two prostheses, five days, and that they would be asked, "What do you as artists see when I tell you there 100 million mines in the earth, and mostly women and children blowing up?"  And that's how the exhibit began.  Then it was shown at the U.N., and it went around the world for five years, and then it came back.  Then it was sold, and a patient of mine bought it.  After he died, the family gave the collection back to me.  I've used it recently in high schools around the New York area to raise awareness.  It's gone to colleges, but if you're a physician trying to run an institute of humanitarian affairs, and trying to practice medicine, being a curator of photographic exhibits is not something you want to do.  It's very time-consuming, very difficult.  And there's a wonderful man who's a Regent of the University of Oklahoma, Max Weitzenhoffer, and Max was a patient of mine, and as if God watches over, just when I was deciding what to do with it, Max walked into the office and told me about the art exhibit here, and some of the photographers recommended very strongly, "Don't give it to Yale, or the International Center for Photography.  They'll show it once, and they have such overwhelming resources they're not going to show it again."  Oklahoma wanted it, and they wanted it with enthusiasm, and they promised to display it.  So the exhibit is a selection of 50 photographs by very, very famous photographers, all focusing on the same thing.  Because of that, it is used in courses teaching photography, because it's very rare that you have people of this stature of Irving Penn, or Lee Friedlander, or Helen Levitt focusing on the same thing.  They all had to agree, by the way, that their names wouldn't be on the photographs.  They would just focus on the prostheses, so I hope that people enjoy the exhibit.

GRILLOT:
Have you received any feedback about it yet?  Do you feel like this exhibit is doing what it's intended to do, and that is raise awareness about this issue?

CAHILL:
It's been shown all over the world, so now the Oklahoma people can come see whether it does that for them, but yes, it definitely did that, and it's been going for a long time.  I also had a friend and patient who published a beautiful catalogue of the exhibit, and I've donated all of this to the museum here, and I hope that it's seen by many, many people.

GRILLOT:
So on the issue of health, and issues like prostheses and land mines, it really seems like the body of your work falls within a category of promoting world peace through health issues.  Is this the critical issue in the world today, in terms of if we don't have a healthy population, we can't have a peaceful, secure, and economically vibrant population around the world today?

CAHILL:
I think it's a very important point.  Health and humanitarian issues have usually been peripheral afterthoughts, certainly in American foreign policy.  Lip service is given.  Many years ago, Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of State, was in my office, and I started talking to him about this, and he became the strongest proponent of the idea that we should focus on these areas.  America's a good country, but around the world, certainly at the U.N., we may be feared, but we're often not loved, because we don't display the care and compassion that we can do.  I have always had a very broad definition of what my role is.  I started life as a physician, diagnosing individual patients, but land mines were a  big problem in camps.  So you couldn't not pay attention to them.  You couldn't not pay attention to the needs for education of children.  So all of these become part of what you do if you're trying to run refugee camps.

GRILLOT:
I have to ask you one question, given your diverse background in the work that you've done.  You've also written a book on Irish literature.  How does this relate to the work that you do, or are you just somebody that's obviously interested in multiple things, and finding another outlet for creativity?

CAHILL:
Well, I wasn't really finding it.  I think I was born into the outlet.  The family was an Irish first-generation immigrant family.  We were raised reciting Irish poetry.  I've served now for 39 years, I think it is, as the President of the American-Irish Historical Society, so I have a more than passing interest, but I'm not an expert in the area.  I also taught, and was chairman of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine in Ireland, so I have bridges on both sides.  I think there's a lot of wisdom in poetry, and a lot of my friends are painters, and writers, and I think that bringing the arts into what we do in life - in my instance, trying to find ways to improve global health - is a very important element.  It's not just movie stars going out and being UNICEF Ambassadors.  It's people like Seamus Heaney struggling to find the right words.  He's a Nobel Prize-winning poet, and I just have always found great solace that there are people writing and doing the same thing that I try to do, but with different tools.  He says he does it with a pen.

GRILLOT:
Well, I think it's a great example of how you can take science and art, and really bring it together, and serve a common purpose, so I thank you for your work, and I thank you for joining us on World Views.

CAHILL:
Well, thank you very much.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.


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