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Boston-Benghazi partnership aims to boost emergency services in Libyan city

The massive Benghazi Medical Center stood empty for decades, a symbol of the corruption that undermined Libya during Moammar Khadafy’s regime, leaving unrealized the dream of making the 1,200-bed hospital a health care hub for the region.

“It was kept like a phantom, a shadow,” said Dr. Laila Bugaighis, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said before a small audience in a Massachusetts General Hospital auditorium Tuesday.

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Bugaighis, a polished woman who speaks with the measuredness of someone who has experienced the risk -- and reward -- of being outspoken under a dictator’s rule, is medical director of Benghazi Medical Center, now partially open and expanding its services in post-war Libya. She and several colleagues were in Boston this week, visiting with physicians from Mass. General and crafting plans to make the Benghazi hospital a center of modern health care.

Construction of the hospital began in 1973. Sensing growing dissatisfaction in eastern Libya, Khadafy opened a portion of the sprawling facility in 2009 -- a breakthrough for health care in the region, Bugaighis said.

Now, she said, the hospital and the country’s nascent health care system can play a key role in uniting the Libyan people and giving them a vision for the future.

For years, the people of Libya had little to no access to health care. The rich got their care abroad, and the regular people suffered, she said.

When people see that post-war Libya can provide this basic human right, she said, “people are going to be easily laying down their weapons and continuing to think about how to improve the living for others. ... I think this is the way forward.”

Bugaighis and her colleagues have been working with Dr. Thomas Burke and others at the Mass. General Division of Global Health & Human Rights to create modern emergency services centered at the hospital, the same facility where physicians tried for 45 minutes on Sept. 11 to revive Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Burke was scheduled to meet with Stevens there just one day after Stevens was killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Now the Boston-Benghazi partnership has added another ally. Stevens’ sister, Anne Stevens, is a pediatric rheumatologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Speaking at Mass. General Tuesday, Stevens talked about her brother’s love for Libya and the call she received just after his death from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promising to find the people who attacked the consulate.

“Chris was not about revenge,” Stevens said. “Chris was about making friends, about smoothing feathers that were ruffled.”

Stevens and the Seattle hospital are joining the work to boost emergency services, focusing on establishing a poison control center at Benghazi Medical Center.

“I hope this will be one of many new bridges between our countries,” she said.

Bugaighis told her personal story of growing up in Libya. When she was a girl, women attended university, and her family spent days on the glorious beaches around Benghazi. Khadafy came to power and “suddenly things changed.”

Her father became a frequent political prisoner and sought refuge for his wife and children abroad.

“We kept going in and out of the country,” she said. “My father kept going in and out of jail.”

University students who protested the government were hanged in the street and people fled Benghazi. The city that had been, like Boston, a center of academia and commerce, “became a very sad town,” she said.

Bugaighis trained in medicine in Libya and abroad. In the past 10 years, she said health care in Benghazi improved some as doctors recruited investors to open private clinics, providing some care at no cost to the poor, and the hospital opened.

She spoke passionately about the role of women in Libya. In February 2011 the mothers and wives of hundreds of men who were killed while imprisoned took to the streets and sparked the Benghazi protests that ignited the country, she said.

“That’s when our beautiful revolution started,” she said.

Weeks later, on March 19, as Khadafy’s forces attacked Benghazi, Bugaighis said she was leaving home for the hospital when two of her nieces came to her, asking what they should do if their home was stormed.

“Try to die,” she recalled telling them. “Fight, and try to die in the fight.”

There was no other option, she had thought. That afternoon, French fighter planes led an international attack, holding off Khadafy forces. It was powerful women, Bugaighis said -- Clinton, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Obama advisor Samantha Power -- who had pushed for US support of the intervention.

Now, under control of a transitional government, the country has difficult work ahead, she said. Much of Benghazi mourned the death of Ambassador Stevens.

“We want reconciliation with the whole world, but we are not going to forgive terrorists who committed atrocities against us,” she said. Stevens, she said, “was one of us.”

The nation has a lot of debt, but government spending on health care has increased four-fold since before the war. A major goal is to increase emergency services in Benghazi, which has no modern ambulance service or 911-like call center. Mass. General and Burke’s team are hoping to help with that effort and others.

Health professionals are in short supply in Libya. Much of the hospital staff was foreign and evacuated during the war. Bugaighis said the hospital is recruiting nurses from the Philippines and beginning to train local people. The partnership with Mass. General also will focus on leadership training, as well as emergency radiology and trauma care.

“We hope that in 200 years from now, the BMC will be as good as MGH,” Bugaighis said.

The group traveled on to Seattle Wednesday, where they will give a talk Friday afternoon at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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