MDCM for peace

Dr. Michael Viola

Michael Viola, MDCM’64, was inspired as a child by both Albert Schweitzer and one-time Montrealer Norman Bethune. (Photo courtesy of Michael Viola)

By Philip Fine

Michael Viola, MDCM’64, is both healer and activist.

The recipient of the 2018 Medicine Alumni Global Award for Community Service has treated patients in war-torn Iraq and Bosnia, set up cancer detection clinics in Haiti, and corroborated the stories of torture victims.

The founder of the medical relief agency Medicine for Peace (MFP) now divides his time between the MFP office in DC and his clinic in Baltimore, but grew up in Revere, a Boston suburb that knew some rough characters. He remembers a “near-idyllic childhood,” due in large part to a nurturing extended Italian-American family. His local doctor encouraged his interest in medicine, but young Michael, who had read at the library about the international development work of Albert Schweitzer and the war exploits of Norman Bethune, wanted to go beyond the neighbourhood family practice.

He studied medicine in Montreal, a city where Bethune had once worked. McGill, he says, gave him his clinical skills and taught him to treat the practice of medicine with reverence. “They instilled the idea that you were privileged to take care of another human being.”

Returning to Boston each summer, he worked in the lab of Bernard Lown, a Harvard researcher who developed the direct-current defibrillator but was also the dean of the anti-nuclear movement. “He was a very controversial guy. The thought then was that physicians should not be active in politics.”

Lown’s credo, “Never be silent in the presence of wrong,” has framed Viola’s activist work.

In 1991, when the first Gulf War began, Viola was Director of the Cancer Center at the State University of New York.

As he and his wife Kathleen Crane watched aerial footage of bombings on TV, they knew that Baghdad, with five million inhabitants at the time, was experiencing tragedy on the ground. He called a physician friend in Jordan who had come back from Iraq. He talked of there being no electricity, no water, and children wading through knee-deep sewage. It was a public-health crisis waiting to happen.

“Sometimes it is a little moment in your life when you do something. And I did a crazy thing. I wrote to the Iraqi ambassador in the US.” Viola wanted to bring an American team to Iraq to help treat civilians and document their illnesses. “And that’s how it all started.”

In Iraq, he would run into a New York Times reporter. The story of doctors witnessing severe malnutrition and widespread disease would land on page one. MFP would go on to publish a number of in-depth reports on the health crisis in Iraq.

In 1995, MFP focussed on Bosnia. In the wake of the Srebrenica massacre, where more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed, they launched a school-based mental health project and remained in Bosnia for more than five years. “That presence gave people comfort.”

MFP’s more recent humanitarian work operates outside the theatre of war. In Haiti, they established a cervical cancer detection program in mobile clinics, and helped improve treatment infrastructure. And stateside, they’ve been meeting with victims of torture. The detailed examinations have secured asylum for every patient they’ve seen.

While most would think documenting the effects of torture would be trying for examining physicians, Viola projects admiration for the people he meets and their ability to call out a wrong. “They inhabit a different moral universe. I’ve never met a torture victim who regretted what they did. They’re an extraordinarily courageous group of people.”

Michael Viola, through his community service, has shown that a physician not only diagnoses ailments but can identify human rights abuses, and treats more than just individuals but can rally other doctors to help heal entire populations.



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