Seattle sister of murdered US Ambassador assists on Libyan health initiative

Event: Three Libyan doctors visited Seattle to promote a new health initiative in Benghazi honoring the legacy of murdered US Ambassador Chris Stevens. Listen to KPLU’s interview with his sister, Seattle doctor Anne Stevens.

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Anne Stevens
Anne Stevens

A group of Libyan physicians were in Seattle this week — despite the best efforts of the FBI to discourage them — to meet with Anne Stevens, a physician researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and others to foster an initiative aimed at building a new health care system in that ravaged country.

Stevens, a pediatric researcher, is sister of the late Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya who was killed last September in the attack on the embassy quarters in Benghazi.

“After he was killed, we wondered why he’d been in Benghazi,” she said. “It was safe in Tripoli so why did he go there? We didn’t know.”

It turns out, Ambassador Stevens had been working with a physician from Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Thomas Burke, to launch a project at the Benghazi Medical Center aimed at improving the poorly functioning health care system.

“This was one of the most neglected part of the country under Gaddafi,” Stevens said. While there are many physicians, she said, there is not much of a health care system. “They don’t have enough ambulances, anything like the 911 (emergency call) system or many of the most basic features of health care we take for granted here.”

Seattle, on the other hand, is relatively famous for its systems approach to health care having been a pioneer in promoting now routine life-savers such as Medic One and poison control.

“One of our ideas is to establish a basic poison control system which could evolve into a 911 system for Libya,” Stevens said. “The idea is to train physicians here and send them back to Benghazi to make these basic changes, with the eventual goal that these systems will spread throughout the country.”

Anne, her father and Chris Stevens
Anne, her father and Chris Stevens

This is a first for Stevens, who’s never before done work overseas and has largely focused on her laboratory speciality of auto-immune diseases. But when her brother was murdered in the attack on the U.S. embassy, the Stevens family began looking more closely into what he had been up to — and into what they could do to continue his legacy.

“After he was killed, Secretary Clinton called me up, at five in the morning, and the first thing she said was ‘Don’t worry, we are going to find out who did this and bring them to justice,’ ” Stevens said. “That’s not what Chris was about. That’s not what he would have wanted.”

What her brother would have wanted, she said, was to continue to work with Burke on the medical initiative in Benghazi. Once the Stevens family learned of it, they contacted Burke to find out how they could help it go forward. The gatherings in Seattle for this health initiative are about honoring Chris Stevens’ kind of diplomacy.

Thomas Burke
Thomas Burke

“It really is a new country, at a tipping point,” said Burke, who is chief of global health and human rights at Mass General and happened to be in Benghazi waiting to meet with Stevens when the attack took place. Most Americans probably have little knowledge of Libya, he said, and are unaware of just how traumatized the people are having lived under the terror regime of Gaddafi.

“These are remarkable people who have endured a lot, some of it because of our own government’s (on and off) support of Gaddafi,” Burke said. “With programs like this we have an opportunity to help them build a new, stable society.”

That’s what makes what happened earlier to the Libyan doctors when they arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport so mindless and infuriating, Burke said.

“The FBI was there waiting for them,” Burke said.

The federal agents wouldn’t allow Burke and his colleagues to talk with their guests. After they retrieved their bags, the three Libyan physicians say they were individually isolated and interrogated for hours. “At one point, we were told, one of the agents said ‘You killed our ambassador!‘”

Burke said he didn’t want to go into too many details about the incident because “there are some serious discussions going on now between the two countries as a result of this.”

Fortunately, he said, they were able to persuade the Libyan physicians not to return home (which is what, after the interrogations by the FBI, they wanted to do) and to push forward with this effort aimed at improving the health and welfare of the new Libya.

Today, Seattle residents have an opportunity to learn more about this initiative, the needs in Libya and the efforts to rebuild a nation. One of the Libyan physicians, who will be speaking at the UW event, will be Dr. Laila Bugaighis, assistant director general of Benghazi Medical Center. She intends to focus especially on the needs of women. Here are a few stories, from the Seattle Times and Boston Globe, on the project. Here’s a Globe and Mail story noting, disturbingly, that the Islamist militia that killed Stevens is back in Benghazi.

“My brother really believed in Libya’s future,” Stevens said. “I don’t think we knew how bold he was being, or how dangerous it was. But he was passionate about the country’s possibilities after the revolution. He was excited to be a part of history in the making…. We want to keep that going.”

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About Author

Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.