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International News
Mission to Libya Triggers Wide Range of Emotions
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 9 page 10-10

The date July 8, 1999, is one that Omar Reda, M.D., will never forget.

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Omar Reda, M.D.: "Mr. Gaddafi had used aircraft missiles to fire on people. So there were people who were cut in half, there were people missing their extremities, there were people missing their brains."

Credit: Omar Reda, M.D.

He was working as an emergency room physician in his hometown of Benghazi, Libya. When he arrived home that evening, his father told him that rumors were circulating that Omar would be imprisoned and perhaps even executed. The reason? He had delivered food and supplies to the families of people imprisoned by Libya's dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

His father urged him to flee the country. Taking his father's advice, he took a boat the next day to Malta, where he remained for several months until he obtained a visa to the United Kingdom. He made the right decision to leave Libya when he did; shortly thereafter, several of his physician friends who had provided similar help were arrested and imprisoned.

Thus started Reda's odyssey—first to the United Kingdom, where he was a political refugee for three years—and then to the United States—where he did a psychiatry residency at the University of Tennessee and where he obtained a master's degree in disaster psychiatry from Harvard University. Today, 12 years after fleeing Libya, he lives in Portland, Ore., and works as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Sciences University. He is married to a woman originally from Libya, and they have three daughters.

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After Reda fled Libya, he didn't think he would ever return as long as Gaddafi remained in power. But then the Libyan revolution started last February 15. Thousands of Libyans, inspired by prodemocracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world, attempted to liberate their country from Gaddafi. "I wanted to help them in some way," Reda said in an interview. "But how could I do that while living and working in Portland, Oregon?"

He looked for organizations that might be sending medical supplies to Libya and found one right in Portland. It was Medical Teams International, a nonprofit humanitarian aid and global health organization founded in 1979. He offered to help as a volunteer, and the organization was delighted to accept. He was told, "We are ready to send a shipment of medical supplies worth $421,000 to Libya right now. Would you be willing to distribute it?" He said yes.

His wife was anxious about his going to a combat zone, but agreed to support him in his effort. His disaster psychiatry training helped him prepare mentally for what he was about to undertake.

On February 26, Reda flew to Cairo. The medical supplies that he was supposed to distribute in Libya had been shipped to Cairo from the Netherlands. However, due to logistical problems, he couldn't obtain access to them right away. Nonetheless, "the Egyptian army and people were very kind, very sympathetic with the Libyan cause," he said, and some Libyan freedom fighters agreed to bring the medical supplies to him in Libya once the supplies had cleared Egyptian customs.

In Cairo, Reda also met a group of Libyans who agreed to take him along when they drove across the Egyptian border into Libya on March 1. Once across the border, he hitched a ride with still other Libyans to his former hometown of Benghazi, located in the eastern, liberated part of Libya.

Although he was exhausted from his long trip, he was exhilarated at the thought of being back on Libyan soil—especially soil "where I could smell the fresh air of freedom and share in Libyans' high spirits. There was a sense of community everywhere, even among strangers."

Shortly after he arrived in Benghazi, the freedom fighters delivered the medical supplies to him. He had initially planned to distribute the supplies in Benghazi, but then learned that a city some 100 miles to the south, Ajdabiya, had just been bombed. There were many casualties, so he decided to take the supplies to that city instead. He got one of his brothers to come along to help. They took the supplies to the city's main hospital. As they tore open the boxes of anesthesia supplies, pain-control narcotics, antianxiety medications, and other items, "people were very excited, very grateful," Reda said.

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After that, Reda helped out as an emergency room physician in the Ajdabiya hospital. It was overcrowded with patients, and some of their injuries were horrific, Reda said. And because of patients' severe injuries, many hospital staff were overwhelmed emotionally, so Reda put his disaster psychiatry knowledge to work as well. He let them know that "what they were experiencing were normal reactions to abnormal situations and that he was available to listen if they wanted to share a thought, emotion, or story" with him. Indeed, stories he heard convinced him that the violence and casualties had been a lot worse than reported by the Western media and humanitarian organizations.

Reda likewise met with the head of the psychiatric hospital in Benghazi. He learned that admissions to the hospital had quadrupled since the start of the revolution, with most cases designated as acute stress disorder, brief psychotic disorder, or hysteria. Both he and the hospital chief agreed that there were probably going to be many cases of posttraumatic stress disorder in the months to come, especially among children who had been raped or who had witnessed their loved ones die.

In Benghazi, Reda also managed to reunite with his parents and some of his nine siblings, to meet some nieces and nephews for the first time, and to help his family with their emotional needs since one of his brothers had been kidnapped and two cousins killed since the revolution started.

On March 15, Reda returned to the United States. His two-week trip had flooded him with myriad emotions—anxiety, relief, joy, heartbreak, anger, and survivor's guilt—and he felt emotionally spent. He still feels emotionally depleted to some extent, he said.

"I am grateful to the Libyan people who fought and sacrificed their lives so that there is a free part of Libya and particularly so that I could return and see my family there," he explained. "The Libyan people are currently cautiously optimistic, especially since the United Nations declared a no-fly zone in Libya on March 17 and the United States spearheaded a military coalition to impose it. But almost every family in Libya has lost at least one loved one through this revolution, and no one feels safe as long as Gaddafi is in power."

Reda now dreams of returning to Libya and helping the Libyan people build a mental health care infrastructure. Currently, mental health care in Libya, even for minor disorders, is provided exclusively in the country's three mental hospitals. There is no outpatient follow-up care, and there are only about 20 psychiatrists to serve a population of 6 million people. "Maybe I can go there three months every year," said Reda. "I'm working with my university on how I can achieve that." 10_1.inline-graphic-1.gif

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Omar Reda, M.D.: "Mr. Gaddafi had used aircraft missiles to fire on people. So there were people who were cut in half, there were people missing their extremities, there were people missing their brains."

Credit: Omar Reda, M.D.

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