Columbia, Mo., woman helping in war-torn South Ossetia

Friday, August 15, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Trish Blair of Columbia, Mo., traveled halfway around the world to run a camp in Georgia for children with diabetes.

Then the fighting over South Ossetia began.

Blair closed the camp, in a mountain resort town less than 60 miles from the disputed region. She chartered a bus for her campers and bumped along gravel back roads for 12 hours to get to the capital, Tbilisi. The 40 children need to be with their parents, she e-mailed friends in Missouri.

War seemed far away -- until the bombers arrived.

They knocked out the airport, destroyed cell phone towers, damaged the electrical grid and sent more than 70,000 refugees streaming into the city with nothing except their frightened families.

People stockpiling food and bottled water emptied grocery shelves. Long lines formed at gas stations. The refugees slept anywhere they could find shelter.

Two fellow volunteers -- Blair's nephew, Greg Blair of Columbia, and Cliff Franklin of Lawrence -- joined an evacuation of 170 people arranged by the U.S. Consulate. A four-bus convoy took them out of the crossfire. They went to Armenia and then headed home.

But not Trish Blair.

The founder and president of the not-for-profit ACTS International, she has been helping the people of Georgia since 1992.

The refugees will need medical care, she said in an e-mail.

With a decision that has simultaneously horrified her friends and made them proud, the former trauma surgeon chose to stay.

Trauma center filled

Reached by e-mail Wednesday, Blair, 63, described what she was seeing in Tbilisi.

In the hallways of Georgia's national trauma center, staff members cared for people from all sides of the conflict: civilians, South Ossetian separatists, Georgian soldiers, Russian soldiers and two Russian airmen from a downed fighter.

"Both the pilots are in good condition. One has a compression fracture in his spine and the second pilot has 2nd degree burns. They are in no danger and are on wards under heavy guard," she wrote.

Despite a cease-fire, Russian troops were still advancing. The people of Tbilisi were hiding in their homes, afraid that Russian troops would turn next to their city. Even as President Bush on Wednesday was calling on Russia to stop all military activities in Georgia, the city of Gori was being bombed, she wrote. A team of physicians was on the way to help the wounded.

The trauma center was filled with people suffering blast burns and broken bones. Bandits, some wearing military uniforms, were looting houses and shooting anyone who got in their way. Several civilians had been killed just trying to stay safe in their homes.

But for a moment, she wrote, there was a break in the bad news.

Amid the chaos and pain, the hospital suddenly grew quiet. A television the staff was using to monitor Russian troop movements -- and possible casualties -- had stopped reporting news about the fighting.

The images beaming through were from Beijing.

There on the screen, a Georgian athlete was receiving the gold medal in judo. They watched as the Georgian flag was hoisted, and when the national anthem began, "everyone clapped. Some cried. It was a moment of pure joy. The intense pride was palpable in the room."

'A passion for Georgia'

It took more than 40 hours for Cliff Franklin to reach Kansas City. But there he was Tuesday night at the airport, stubble long on his face, wearing a new soccer shirt he'd bought at another airport and needing a shower.

Franklin had hours to think about what he'd lived through.

"I still can't believe it all happened," he said.

His words spilled out. How the Russian television reports differed so wildly from the Georgian news stories. How the people of Georgia seemed so strong in the face of this terrible wave of violence. How they loved their president.

How they loved freedom.

In 1971, his father, Ralph Franklin, and Ron James, a Columbia physician who taught at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, helped start a camp for diabetics near Columbia.

James was teaching at the medical school with his wife, Elizabeth, a neonatologist. One of their students was Trish Blair. Years later, it was Blair who would talk Ron James into starting a camp for diabetics in Georgia.

Blair fell in love with Georgia after a visit to the former Soviet Union, where she was invited to inspect the medical response to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. While there, she met physicians from Georgia, who showed her their homeland and their need for advanced medical care.

"Blair has a passion for Georgia that can affect other people," Elizabeth James said. "Blair is a powerhouse resource for the country."

Ron James ran the camp in Georgia for 13 years, until his death in 2006. Continuing the camp there is just one of the many medical missions that Blair and her not-for-profit ACTS are doing in Georgia.

Children from the original camp in Georgia are now grown. Some of them return each year to teach the next generation of campers.

"They're in very, very good health," Franklin said.

In the last week, Franklin saw Blair at her best, too, he said.

Her talents are her knowledge of medical trauma and her ability to get supplies where they're needed. Blair is working in the hospital with the wounded while sending e-mails to U.S. volunteers, while organizing medical teams in Georgia, while calling the State Department for medical supplies, plasma and antibiotics.

In her most recent e-mail, which arrived at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Blair tallied some of the damage: Airport runways unusable. Main roads cratered with bombs. Ships destroyed.

In Kutaisi, ACTS was caring for 1,000 refugees. All three hospitals were full.

"The Russian troops continue to terrorize the Georgian citizens in the village around Gori and Zugdidi. Late this afternoon the tanks started moving toward Kaspi, the village just east of Gori," she wrote.

But there was a glimmer of hope, too. The first of two U.S. C-17 cargo planes had arrived.

It brought enough food, water, tents and medical supplies for about 50,000 people. The second plane is expected this morning, carrying 104,000 doses of antibiotics, according to the U.S. State Department.

Blair said thousands of people ran out to the plane, cheering and waving U.S. and Georgian flags.

"Thank you" she wrote. "This is a tense and difficult night."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: