Good Works

The House Guest

Peter Golden writer

Somewhere in Wellesley Hills a light burns late in the guest room of an attractive colonial residence on a pleasant, tree-lined street. Sitting at a desk, a young doctor reads through his clinical notes, the product of his research in pediatric hydrocephalic surgical procedures. He pauses to take a phone call and jots down a few more thoughts in preparation for a presentation of study results his team from Children’s Hospital will make at a professional conference.

The hour grows late as he turns to a set of review materials. They are voluminous and infinitely complex, but he must master them if he is to qualify for advanced training in the medical specialty to which he has dedicated himself – neurosurgery.

Dr. Gani Abazi has just turned thirty and is the recipient of two prestigious Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarships that have brought him to the United States. His native country, Kosovo, is a tiny Balkan state that has only recently declared its independence from Serbia with which not so long ago it was engaged in a brutal war.

The clock ticks, but Abazi will not sleep until long past midnight. His focus is clearly on improving his research and clinical skills, the primary criteria by which those who hold the keys to his professional future will measure him. Only a few openings will occur among the four or five dozen medical centers that offer the seven-year training program necessary to achieve basic proficiency in his chosen field.

Yet a master’s degree with a concentration in policy development and management, which he recently completed at the Harvard School of Public Health, suggests his professional interests are more eclectic than might otherwise be imagined.

Medical training and associated clinical research by necessity are rigorous pursuits. Among all the specialties for which a young MD can prepare, neurosurgery must surely rank as one of the most challenging. But for better or worse, Dr. Gani Abazi carries something more with him than purely clinical interests.

An Eclectic Mix

In meeting him one senses his passionate engagement with his profession. But his past has shaped him in ways you and I can barely understand. The circumstances of his youth and early manhood, lived at times in the midst of armed conflict, begin to explain why. Start with his personal history: It reads like a novel – or a saga.

Highlighted by acts of war, flight, and displacement, it begins on a tiny farm in a diminutive country that is by far the poorest in Europe – a new country whose very existence is a miracle – one that has traversed an epoch of suffering and death that has been compared to World War II in its ferocity and brutality.

As a teenager Abazi found himself, like all citizens of Kosovo of Albanian descent, the subject of discrimination and repression by a dominant, post-communist Serbian regime. Always a straight-A student, he read modern literature and learned English while still in high school. But in his senior year the long-simmering conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs exploded into a whirlwind of violence and killing – and then escalated into an unimaginable act of savagery.

In 1998 and 1999, Serbian forces murdered upwards of 12,000 of Kosovo’s citizens, with almost a million more taking flight for nearby Albania. The US Department of State called it genocide and ethnic cleansing. Enough of the world agreed with the US assessment to send in a substantial NATO force to stop the killing. That was almost a decade ago, and the memory of the horror, helped by Serbian denial and the relentless passage of time, is fading, but not for Dr. Gani Abazi.

A Family in Flight

With the war beginning and his village threatened, Abazi and his family fled over the mountains into Albania. There, he put his knowledge of English to work as a translator for news agencies covering what came to be called the “Second Balkan War.” His university classes were abruptly cancelled and suddenly his dream of becoming a physician was at risk. Yet Abazi could see the need to carry the story of his people beyond the reach of Serb authorities. “I saw horrific things happening in Kosovo’s cities and towns,” says Abazi. “Our village was burned.”

By good fortune, he found a position with the BBC, guiding teams of reporters back into Kosovo. Risking his life at enemy checkpoints to help carry the news of Serbian aggression to the world, he worked until able to resume studies for his medical degree in Pristina, the capital of what would become an independent Kosovo in February of 2008. Only a NATO-brokered armistice and the permanent presence of a peacekeeping force of 50,000 (now reduced to 16,000 troops) allowed his family to return home.

A Complex Fabric

How then does a young doctor (he received his medical degree in 2006) make the transition from a life cleft by violence and terror to a peaceful neighborhood in America and the dream of a career as a neurosurgeon? Should he eventually achieve such a distinction, he will be the first US–trained physician in his specialty area to return to Kosovo.

Abazi’s story is woven from a complex fabric, with strands leading all over Europe, to Japan, and across the United States. In all those places, Abazi has looked beyond his own career goals, working with Rotary International, his academic sponsor, to bring desperately needed medical care to Kosovo.

In his travels he has developed a kind of following, a support network of academics, fellow doctors, and even government bureaucrats whom he has sensitized to the poverty and vulnerability of his country. In a sense, it is what he was born to do.

His journey began with his parents, who raised him in an open-minded and nurturing home despite the privations of small farm life and too many mouths to feed. It went on to his high school teachers who gave him hard-to-get books and then to a UN administrator who helped finance his travels.

Along the way he made contact with a group of Rotarians, some at the organization’s international headquarters in Chicago, others here in Wellesley and across the Northeast who listened to his ideas and then applauded his efforts. Abazi, they realized, was working not just on behalf of Kosovo, but for all the lesser-developed nations that need specialty medical training. In response, Rotary International has granted Abazi two Ambassadorial Scholarships for graduate studies at Harvard University.

Personal Charisma

“His personal charisma and drive to put his medical relief ideas into action make him quite extraordinary. He’s just a lovely human being,” says Karen Swaim Babin, a 21-year member of Rotary International and a program coordinator in the Northeast for the organization.

Soon, the demands of his career will lead Abazi to move on, but for the time being, he lives in Wellesley Hills, his presence based on the warm welcome of a member of Wellesley Rotary and his wife. While here, Abazi has been working collaboratively with an international Rotary program called “Gift of Life” which brings children from Kosovo (and others lesser-developed countries) to Boston and elsewhere in the US for life-saving surgery. Last year he coordinated successful treatment for two youngsters from his country, and he is one of three founding members of “Gift of Life Kosovo in Prishtina” (GOLKOS).

“He is building something that can only be called serendipitous,” says Klaus Hachfeld, a Rotarian from Western Massachusetts who has worked with Abazi on a variety of medical programs.

Relentless Energy

For now, Abazi remains deeply engaged in his research and preparation for his advanced surgical training. Under the direction of Dr. Joseph Madsen of the Neurosurgery Department of Children’s Hospital, Abazi and his fellow investigators are bringing new understanding to the use of shunts to relieve post-surgical pressure on children’s brains.
His neurosurgery professor and mentor, the recently deceased Dr. Henry Schmidek, once said that Abazi might someday become president of his country, or at least its minister of health. Perhaps he will, and after that find a way to move on to the World Health Organization, where the role he assumes in the ongoing drama of his life might find even larger expression.

“I want to minimize the suffering of my people;” he says, “see them go beyond that to the prosperity and economic growth that are the result of good healthcare, and then share my knowledge more widely.”

His words, always spoken in a calm, understated manner, are no less powerful for the way they are delivered. Yet they have the ring of a national epoch, perhaps even a global one, in the making. But first Dr. Abazi has some patients to attend to.

Spring 2024